The Utility of the American Dream: Oh, to be a Granddad at Whataburger on a Saturday morning!

By Ashley Bean Thornton

There’s a guy I see about once a week at Whataburger.  I’m guessing he’s about my age, a white guy.  Friendly, but not aggressively so.  Just a nice guy. I don’t know what he does for a living now; I think he used to be some kind of minister.  Anyway, this morning, a Saturday morning in February, he was laughing – counting up the number of ball games he was going to see.  It sounded like all his grandkids are in the 7 – 10 age range, and they were all either playing basketball or soccer.  He was going to make the rounds.  I think it ended up being four games in all – a busy, happy Saturday.

I am reading a book right now about the American Dream. It occurred to me that whatever the “American Dream” might have meant in the past or what it might mean to other people, this guy represents the American Dream to me right now.  Not my specific dream – I don’t even have kids, much less grandkids – but the generic “American Dream.”   Here he is headed toward retirement — if not already there – having a breakfast burger and headed out for a great day with his grandkids.

I don’t really know anything about this guy at all, but in my imagination, he and maybe a wife live in a nice house somewhere – maybe Woodway.  They have a couple of dependable cars, health insurance, a 401K, enough money to go out to eat a couple times a week, maybe take a trip every other year or so.  Their kids are doing fine too, with kids of their own.  The kids are busy young adults.  They both work, but they are usually home by 6:00 or 7:00.  Luckily grandmom and granddad live close enough to help out every now and then – and of course to come to ball games. This guy and his wife had some sadness in their lives of course – we all do – but, overall, they are very lucky, “blessed” as we like to say in the Bible belt.  Barring some catastrophe – their lives will rock along pretty much like this into old age.  Some people may think this sounds awfully dull – but it sounds wonderful to me.  Like I said, the American Dream.  I am pretty much living that dream too – without the grandkids – but with the house, the cars, the health insurance, the 401K… I too have been very lucky, “blessed.”

I am in my 60’s now – old enough to look back and think about all the bits and pieces that have contributed to my American Dream.  My mom and dad both went to college – Mom finished, Dad didn’t quite, thanks to me coming along.  I have one little sister, a manageable family size, thanks to access to birth control.  (I remember Mom’s calendar hanging inside the kitchen cabinet door where she carefully marked off the days for pills, and the days for no pills.) Mom and Dad both had good jobs, both worked hard.  Dad wasn’t around much, more his choice, I think, than necessity.  Mom was a teacher. We had books in the house, church on Sunday and Wednesday, and summers off spent at Grandmom’s or at the YMCA learning to swim and do spin art.  I sailed through school.  High school graduation was never in doubt.  My parents paid for my first car.

Between my parents’ savings, some good scholarships, and a little work, I graduated from college with no debt.  Got married.  My husband and I both got decent jobs – one job each, not several.  We always had health insurance through our work.  We bought a little house, started putting money into a 401K.  We got jobs that paid a little more – bought a little bit bigger house. Never got around to having kids.

My parents got divorced, which was really better for everyone, I think, though I’m sure my mom felt judged by some at the time.  Thank goodness Mom had her own job, her own money, her own credit, and the divorce laws were fair.  She has been fine on her own.  She is in her 80’s now; we have never had to worry about, or spend money on, taking care of her.  My dad died of colon cancer because he is a knot-head and never got a colonoscopy. (If you are over 40 and you haven’t had one – go get it!).  Thanks to his savings and good choices about Medicare plans, we didn’t pay a penny towards his VERY expensive treatments.

Now my husband and I are looking at retiring at the end of this school year.  We have a house, four dogs, a retirement plan, enough money to eat out a couple times a week and probably take a trip every other year or so.  We buy hardback books when we feel like it instead of waiting for the paperback or checking them out from the library.  Barring some catastrophe, we will probably be fine as we toddle into old age (knock on wood.)

I’ve gotten more involved in politics this last year – it can be overwhelming.  So much anger and aggravation.  So many issues that I don’t feel like I have the time to really research – and even if I take the time, how do I even tell what’s true and what’s false?

Taking a few minutes to think about the “American Dream” helps me re-center.  I want to vote for things that I think help make it possible for more people – including people who have not been as lucky/ “blessed” as I have been – to live the American Dream my Whatafriend and I are enjoying.

To me that includes, among other things:

  • Respect and fairness for everyone regardless of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, eye color, or any of our many other past and future ways of sorting ourselves into “in” and “out” groups;
  • Supporting family planning through access to maternal health care including contraception and safe, accessible, abortion;
  • Making sure everyone (women, minorities, marginalized groups) have equal rights and opportunities when it comes to work, pay and money;
  • Supporting young families – as other countries have done – with expanded parental leave, childcare and pre-K;
  • Good quality, accessible public education;
  • Public transportation and walkability;
  • Health insurance coverage for all;
  • Jobs with safe workplaces, fair work practices, and decent pay that makes it possible for people to maintain a decent lifestyle and still have time for themselves and their families;
  • Balancing the need for good jobs and a comfortable lifestyle now with the need to maintain a livable planet;
  • Public Health, including reasonable vaccine policies and areas for public recreation and exercise, among other things;
  • Public safety, including maintaining a well-trained, community-oriented police force; reasonable gun laws; fair laws and law-enforcement that doesn’t inadvertently punish some groups more than others, among other things;
  • Accessibility for disabled people;
  • A decent safety net for people who have fallen on hard times or who for one reason or another cannot take care of themselves;
  • A system for security and dignity in old age;
  • A humane, well-ordered system for immigration;
  • A strong, well-maintained, well-trained military available to protect us, and our allies when needed;
  • A foreign policy that stands against evil, balances the support of our American Dream with fair consideration for the dreams and rights of our fellow citizens of the Earth in other countries, and takes into account that – in the end – the world is small, and we are all in this together.

I know this all costs money, but based on my own life history, I believe it also makes money.  I believe more stability breeds more productivity and prosperity.  I think if we put our mind to it, we could organize our tax system to provide for better stability and access to the “American Dream” without making taxes too onerous on most of us, without depriving the .01% of too much of their luxury, and without destroying anyone’s motivation to keep investing in our capitalist system.

I know the world is not perfect and never will be perfect.  We will always have disagreements.  We will always have to make trade-offs. I know there are many, many issues I haven’t even considered here.

But, in the hurricane of fact and fiction, anger, frustration, disbelief, confusing complexity and jaw-dropping oversimplification that I feel swirling toward me this election year, maybe a focus on the American Dream will help me keep my feet on the ground.  Maybe it will help me to consider each issue and controversy with this question in mind…Is this going to help more people retire to a life of spending Saturdays grabbing a breakfast burger and watching their grandkids play ball all day? Or is it just a big distraction?



  1. LaRaine DuPuy on February 3, 2024 at 10:56 am

    Thank you, Ashley, for this well written and beautifully articulated piece. I could not agree more!

  2. Pat stone on February 3, 2024 at 11:04 am

    You make a thoughtful, rational and readable point. I want to read that book and join you on the ground.

  3. Stephanie Pounds on February 3, 2024 at 11:46 am

    One of my favorite Liz Lemon quotes: “All of humankind has one thing in common: the sandwich. I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.”
    Sandwich is what they call a Whataburger up north.
    When the world is on fire, I always imagine a woman in the middle of it all wondering why she can’t just sit in peace and have a sandwich. Your list is the answer to the problem.

  4. Debbie Ucci on February 3, 2024 at 2:08 pm

    Love this ABT! Makes me want to go meet a granddad friend at Whataburger and discuss the American dream. You are so articulate, and we thank you for that.

  5. Jane Comer on February 3, 2024 at 4:44 pm

    Ashley, thanks for the list of requirements to enable more folks enjoy the American Dream. We all need to register to vote and vote after doing some research. Mass voting is what real democracy is all about.

  6. Margo Pearson on February 3, 2024 at 7:22 pm

    It’s a beautiful dream. Our individual dreams may all look different but it would be great if we could agree that your list would help all of us to accomplish our different dreams.

  7. Cassy Burleson on February 3, 2024 at 9:35 pm

    You should run for governor of Texas.
    It’s been a while since Ann Richards and other effective Texas women in powerful roles made a difference in all the things you mention.
    You have their “it” factor.
    You’re still young, and you have what it’s going to take to turn the ship.

  8. Carolyn Rodabough on February 4, 2024 at 6:39 am

    Excellent !

  9. Louise Ann Powell on February 4, 2024 at 8:20 am

    What a super essay to read on Sunday morning. I share that American dream mostly because, like you, I’ve been blessed with a stable and loving family, superb college education and worthwhile, satisfying work. Sometimes I forget gratitude for all this good fortune and need a reminder to pay it forward

  10. Louise Ann Powell on February 4, 2024 at 8:20 am

    What a super essay to read on Sunday morning. I share that American dream mostly because, like you, I’ve been blessed with a stable and loving family, superb college education and worthwhile, satisfying work. Sometimes I forget gratitude for all this good fortune and need a reminder to pay it forward

  11. Carol Munn on February 4, 2024 at 6:09 pm

    Ashley, tell me again why you are not in charge of the country, or even the world? Your system of weighing laws, practices, and leaders against your excellent definition of the American Dream turns the overwhelming rabidity of politics into a human scale I can ponder. Thank you for your work and for your sharing your thoughts.

  12. Kyle Dahlem on February 5, 2024 at 6:52 am

    To dream the impossible dream is to be human/humane. Yours is no daydream. Let’s make it a reality 🙏.

  13. Phillip Reeder on February 5, 2024 at 11:13 am

    In all my travel (and I have traveled not only these United States but also all around the world) it has been my observation that nearly every person on this planet, in their day-to-day struggles with their own daily routine, want just the same things. You can characterize it as “the American dream”. They want security for themselves and their families and a hope and expectation that their honest labor will be rewarded with that security. Most want the same for their neighbors, local and worldwide. Your “Whataburger moment” articulates that same truth.

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