Personal: American Dreams

Nate Burbeck

WE ARE FIRST TIME ‘home’ buyers, which, when you think about it, is a funny way of putting it.

The real estate industry’s use of the term shows a penchant for selling more than just a house.

But do apartments/condominiums/cardboard boxes along the highway not serve as homes for people?

First time ‘house’ buyer does not have the same ring to it.

Last night my wife and I saw three houses with our realtor. The first house was in a subdivision behind a Barnes & Noble, in the middle of town, although you had to drive pretty far back along the roads to get there. It was a tidy little house with hardwood floors throughout, narrow hallways, and dimming lights. It was not a long drive to the second house, farther outside of town, which was in a neighborhood bordering Route 48: the main road which cuts through the middle of downtown Dayton, OH. It was an unoccupied “L” shaped white brick house neatly tucked on a gently sloping hill with new insides. And even farther South on Route 48, the furthest out of town, was the last house. It stood relatively solitary on a backroad surrounded by trees and large patches of grass stretching into farms, parks, and church lots.

This triangulation of houses is in the forgotten area between Cincinnati and Columbus, OH. Probably the only focal point of national significance is I-75 (which runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down through the everglades to its terminus in Miami, FL). This area, “Southern Dayton,” is cradled to the east of this major highway. And there are not so subtle gradations of class and society stratified on both sides of I-75, which acts as a sort of dividing line—running between burned out old warehouses, strip malls, and the occasional patch of wooded terrain.

In other words, this is middle America.

HAD YOU TOLD ME when I was an adolescent that I would, ten years later, be shopping for houses in Southern Dayton, I would not have believed you. I would have probably been offended.

The choice for me then was between the city and the beach.

Best case scenario would have been a city on the beach.

My future life to me at that time seemed so far off that the possibility of staying within the bounds of suburbia into my adulthood was abhorrent. I got the sense, as I’m sure most kids still do through whatever types of media they ingest, that real life only happens on either American coast. If you are a big shot you will go east or west. To remain hemmed in by the trappings of a comfortable fly-over state life cosigns you to a slow corrosion of meaningless toil and obscurity.

That is what I thought almost all of my life.

Then, when I was 23, I met the woman of my dreams and we got married. And then, three years later, we had a baby (which were both preemptive life watermarks by millennial standards).

My big city dreams would be curtailed in ways I could not predict: I wanted to be a musician, I also wanted to write something important. And to do that I needed to be in or near a hub of creative influence: New York City, Los Angeles, etc.

But that was not to be.

I found out how conciliatory adult life can be. With marriage and children comes an entirely new consideration of familial unity which puts a lid on certain prospects for relocation, or at least makes it more difficult. Personal advancements become subjugated to focusing primarily on providing for those one loves—and not only financially—which sometimes means avoiding unnecessary risk. The pace of life tends to slow down. Health insurance becomes a must.

In short, I learned some things about myself. I saw the hollowness of my kid ‘dreams’ in light of my new life, and how uncritically I had imbibed those kid ‘dreams’ from pop-culture and had, at the time, interpreted them falsely as somehow unique to me. I realized the importance of family—the importance of contextualizing one’s individuality within a loving collective, and how sad life can be without that. I learned that maybe I am not a big shot, maybe I am a normal person, and maybe I am okay with that.

SO I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED to find these kid ‘dreams’ coming back to me, almost from the dead, as we drove last night from house to house. There was an old dread, an old reluctance to lay claim to my home.

Although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Being a first time home buyer after all is a big step towards permanence.

Up until this point our life situation has been nullified by a kind of transience, the kind that can pack up and move at any time, deciding to chase the big dream after all. This enables a having of the cake and eating it too: pretending to let go of kid ‘dreams’ while still maybe only just a little bit holding onto them, all while performing the sober considerations of adult life, having them in your back pocket as a sedative when needed.

Seeing each of these houses was seeing a potential future, a future of no insignificant length, one measured out by years instead of months.

The specter of old dreams loomed.

I came face to face with my real self as opposed to an idealized self; not the self I dreamed about becoming but the self that had actually made the real day-to-day decisions of my life. This raw truth had the expected effect: I drove around in a muted sort of shock, unable to figure out what standard to hold to my life to measure its failure or success, or the ambiguity therein.

I GREW UP in Ohio. I always thought it was boring, ugly. Going on vacation proved this. Every place seemed exotic by comparison. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned, from literature of all places, how to appreciate the physical, geographic beauty of home.

David Foster Wallace’s opening to the posthumous The Pale King, a description of Peoria, is one of my favorite examples:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’squarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Or a much shorter summation from Kurt Vonnegut:

What geography can give all Middle Westerners, along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all directions.

Makes you religious. Takes your breath away

Driving along the state routes to our different house options immediately reminded me of these descriptions and of my own impressions about the land I live on—flat vistas along the highways of the fields and neighborhoods.



I had missed this before.

THE HOUSES THEMSELVES presented different types of options. The one behind Barnes & Noble was the closest to town. The “L” shaped house was removed a little bit from town. The country house was furthest from town. There were gradations, even in nondescript middle America.

We walked into the first house and were immediately struck by the paint. Brown and red with soft lighting throughout. It was a nice place. Small but nice. All of the family’s stuff was still in the house. There was a guitar on a stand. Books on shelves. Blankets on couches. The bedrooms were all neatly organized.

We felt like we were intruding.

On one of the dressers was a copy of Big Sur by Jack Kerouac and a Collected Works by Oscar Wilde.

Good taste isn’t dead after all, I thought.

The back yard was a good third of an acre, surrounded by other thirds of acres filled with clotheslines, sheds, coiled hoses, and partial fences. The frozen grass stiffly held a dusting of snowflakes like dandruff. This grass could be my grass, I thought. A piece of earth. Mine? Mine. Basically the American Dream. Invented by guys in powdered wigs. Self-evident truths. All men are created equal. This grass does not belong to nobles or despots. It belongs to this family. It could belong to me. A piece of ground. Personal sovereignty

I could hear I-75 in the distance, cars hissing through the air from Michigan to Miami. What were they doing in those cars? Listening to music. Talking. Thinking to themselves.