The Other American Dream

June 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt looks at what many Americans do when they’re not trying to do something.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The recent movie “The Rookie” deals with one kind of American dream, the dream of achieving something, doing something, being something.

ACTOR: Feed me.

ACTOR: Yeah, dad, bring the heat!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Dennis Quaid dreams of pitching in the big leagues.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: But the art of dreaming in America goes too deep in the national soul to be restricted to that. The other kind of American dream, in fact, involves a lack of specific ambition. Dreaming can simply involve a general state of being.

For all our reputation of being with it, Americans would just as soon be out of this world as in it, and why not? One of the odder charms of our country is that most of us– the great majority, really– not only feel out of things, we hardly know anyone who thinks of him or herself as in things.

If Presidential candidates are to be believed, not one of them has ever set foot in Washington. Candidates who are present or former Congressmen and Senators must have driven around the periphery of the city on the beltway, tossing in their votes from their cars. Washington is known as the city of insiders. To be an insider, the term implies, is not just to be where the power is, but to be wrong in one’s perspective, perhaps even to be a crook. Thus, being an outsider is a form of self-congratulation — only the best people do it.

One of the splendid tensions within which we function is that between overworking and over dreaming. One of the reasons I, myself, work like crazy is to make amends for a personality that would gladly spend its life staring out the window. This tendency has its penalties, as you may imagine. In the sixth grade, our teacher asked us if anybody had a musical instrument, to bring it in and play it before the class. As it happened, my aunt gave me a guitar the day before, and though I had never played the guitar a day in my life, there I sat before my hysterical classmates, playing my one-chord rendition of “Red River Valley.” I had simply dreamed that playing the guitar would come to me naturally. I was, for the moment, in the company of classic American dreamers. Like Holden Caulfield, or Huck Fink, or Tom Sawyer, or the boy in a Winslow Homer painting, lying under a tree with a weed in his teeth.

As a kid, when I daydreamed out the window in class, the teacher would ask me the shrill, predictable question: “Roger, would you care to rejoin the group?” I’d think, “Not really.” Would you care to rejoin the group? Would you care to rejoin the program in progress? Would you care to rejoin Cokie and Sam and Tim and Wolf? Would you care to rejoin the parties, the pollsters, the civil service, the Civil War, the Elks, Masons, Mummers, the American Legion, the French Foreign Legion, the Boy Scouts, the team, league, the gang, the guild, the company, the task force, the committee, the subcommittee, the staff, the tribe, sect, phylum, genus, species? The Presidential race? The human race? Not really. That’s part of the reason that being out of things feels so good to us– because we are not joiners by nature, temperament, or history.

The nation was founded by outsiders with an outsider mentality, and this is how dreaming becomes doing. Only a true outsider can be a cowboy, an inventor, a hero. The country itself was made up out of a dream, producing, some would say, a dream of a country. I’m sorry– what were you saying? Outside the window, the day breaks over a red Schwinn Bike that powers itself towards the smiling sun. The ball game is about to begin. Someone is handing out free guitars and chocolate shakes. School’s out, and I am watching Ashley Judd walk very slowly but definitely toward me.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.