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“How’s it going?” I asked a co-worker recently as we passed each other in the 6th floor men’s room.

“Oh, you know. Livin’ the dream.”

He said it in a put-upon way that clearly meant he was aiming for irony. It was 7:30 on a Wednesday morning in the middle of a Kansas City winter. The only dream anyone has in that kind of scenario involves crawling back into a warm bed.

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Still, our brief exchange made me wonder why people say things like that. A lot of people reply, “Livin’ the dream,” when asked how they are or what they’re doing. Or they might say, “It’s another day in paradise.” I get that sometimes from a relative who recently had his third back surgery in the past six months. “Another day in paradise,” he’ll grunt in a way that makes it pretty plain that he is, in fact, in another place well south of paradise.

We all know, in this cynical, sarcastic age, what these expressions mean: that life is shitty or, at best, uneventful. We are decades removed from a time when living the dream may have meant exactly that. Still, wouldn’t it be interesting if someone from a faraway place, a place not saturated with television advertising, celebrity gossip, 24-hour cable news, color-coded terror alerts or a stagnant economy, were somehow able to inhabit my body as I pass my co-worker (we’ll call him Mike) in the men’s room at 7:30 on a Wednesday morning. Here’s how I imagine that conversation playing out:

“How’s it going?” I ask.

“Oh, you know. Livin’ the dream.”

“Really? That sounds amazing.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Huh?”

“Tell me about the dream,” I say.

“Are you being a smart-ass?” Mike asks.

“No, I really want to know. I mean, you and I have been in a few meetings with each other. I know you have a wife and, what, three children? I know you drive a Nissan Pathfinder. You don’t seem like a particularly happy man. But to hear that you are living this dream… Well, it makes me wonder what kind of dream you are talking about.”

Mike takes off his glasses and rubs his forehead as he squints into the bathroom mirror. “Look, Stephen, I’m really not in the mood for this. My two-year-old had a meltdown this morning because we’re out of Fruit Loops. My wife’s mad at me for not shoveling the driveway. I left my laptop at home and had to drive all the way back through the sleet and snow to get it. I have a performance review in 30 minutes with my boss. And you’re busting my chops about, what was it again?”

“The dream that you are living,” I reply. “Although I must say it doesn’t sound like anything that I would describe as dream-like. At least not a pleasant dream.”

“You know what, Roth?” Mike leans in close enough that I can smell the coffee on his breath. “You’re a real asshole.”

He storms out of the bathroom without drying his hands. The next time I see Mike, two weeks later, he’s glowering at me from across the conference room table as I stammer through my Power Point. I never do learn about Mike’s dream. Neither of us brings it up. Our interactions are brief and business-like.

“Livin’ the dream?” Don’t bet on it. People who are truly living the good life don’t talk like that. They smile politely, say “I’m fine,” and scurry back to their desks in the hopes that no one will find out how truly lucky they are.

Next week, we’ll explore the rising popularity and social implications of, “It is what it is.”

 

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