Recently I was walking along a Manhattan street (my bicycle was at the dry cleaners) when I encountered a drawer that someone had divorced from its chest and placed upright on the sidewalk. On this drawer, in black marker, it said, "Become Your Dream."
For a moment I thought this was whimsical and amusing, but the more I thought about it the angrier I got. I don't like signs that tell me what to do (traffic signs excluded — those are genuinely useful) and I definitely don't like unsolicited advice from strangers. This was a combination of both. Moreover, it was advice of the most smug and trite kind — gloating masquerading as compassion. "Become this!" I was tempted to reply while indicating my groin, though fortunately I stopped myself before anybody caught me goading a piece of bedroom furniture.
Of course, this being New York City, I had a feeling that what I had seen wasn't just some random scribbling on garbage. Sure enough, when I plugged the phrase "Become Your Dream" into a popular search engine, I learned that this drawer (as well as lots of other similarly inscribed bits of refuse) was in fact the work of James De La Vega, whom Salon.com once called "probably the most revered street artist in New York." Yes, this city is just unfair that way; De La Vega is lauded as brilliant, whereas the building superintendent who writes "Take Me" on an old air conditioner and leaves it on the curb continues to toil in anonymity.
Admittedly, though, the Become Your Dream drawer did spur me to think, and maybe that alone qualifies it as art — even if all I could think about was how much it pissed me off. This is because Become Your Dream isn't just corny advice; it's bad advice. Believing that you can simply click your heels three times and Become Your Dream is what's wrong with our culture. It caused the subprime mortgage crisis, it's the reason people drive cars so big they can't even see cyclists, and it's even the essence of the entire "hipster" phenomenon. Just picture some idealized version of yourself in your mind's eye, and then accessorize yourself to match. Everybody's a rock star with no band.
In truth, the best path to self-actualization is not to Become Your Dream; rather, it's to Live Your Nightmare. Nothing will teach you what you truly want like doing something you hate. The filmmaker in yesterday's post was just one in a succession of relentless, quirky, and egotistical taskmasters for whom I have toiled over the years. As a teenager, for example, I worked for a maniacal and bloodthirsty hardware store proprietor. Early in my tenure, he asked me to get him a bag from his station wagon. As I wrestled the full, 55-gallon, heavy-duty bin liner from the tailgate, a head lolled out from it, and I realized the bag was stuffed full of geese he had shot earlier in the day. He also used to take me down to the basement, which he'd then trash while cursing the other employees. It was like the basement was a hotel room and he was a one-man Led Zeppelin (albeit a Jewish Led Zeppelin who had been in the Navy).
"Cocksuckers!" he'd yell as he hurled boxes of sundries across the room. Then he'd make me clean it all up. He wasn't all bad, though. When the sex offender who'd once worked in the store got out of prison, my boss was considerate enough to hire him back — even though his "rehabilitation" was tenuous at best, and even though he'd acquired a frightening scar and matching nervous tic while in the "joint."
Looking back, all of these bosses now resolve themselves into a single, 10-armed, Kali-like being, eternally shouting "Cocksuckers!" and throwing debris at me across time and space. Far from being bitter, though, I'm actually quite grateful. If, down there in the basement, my boss had told me to Become My Dream instead of making me dodge flying boxes of garden hoses, I might never have resolved to do whatever I could not to wind up as miserable as he was. As for the sex offender, I made sure never to go downstairs with him under any circumstances.