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Peter Mehlman Headshot

Never Enough

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In Los Angeles, a self-made mogul sat poolside the morning after hosting his daughter's wedding in a hotel ballroom his wife had redecorated for the event. From rooms he paid for, out-of-town wedding guests drifted down to the pool and asked how a pop legend wound up performing at the reception. The mogul leaked some I'm-a-god details then took a long breath of how amazing life can be.

But then uh-oh: a guest mentioned that the parents of the bride began dating in grade school. Fast, fast, fast, the mogul said, "But we broke up for a while during college."

Hook, line and subtext, the guests willingly bought what they knew was untrue: During that "while," I sowed silos of wild oats.

The guests nodded and winked and oh-babied until the photo-shopped picture of a great life eased back in its frame.

For updates on the American Dream, it's tough to beat Poolside, LA. And really, you need to keep tabs on the American Dream because, like most grand ideas, it takes madcap detours. As in that chaise-lounged morning, the latest turn is uniquely heartbreaking: the American Dream needs fudging because it just isn't enough anymore.

Somehow, after 236 years under spacious skies, we've reached a place where having it all only accents what we lack. The shortfalls of our lives glint in the corner of our eyes and rather than look away, we sit and discount our blessings.

Nagging doubt is universal but cooking personal history is so USA. For half the 20th Century, we contrived our lives to get a foot in the door of the American Dream -- a country rife with Gatsby's inventing autobiographies to make everyone think we could be who we weren't. It must have been lovely to live in a time when you could dictate how people feel about you by simply telling them how they should feel about you, but The Information Age won't have it. Everyone has so much access to everyone, no prosthetic part of your past slips by unnoticed.

Beyond poolside, this never-enough-ness turns up in corporate offices, private jets, public courts, shredded marriages... anywhere there's a U.S. citizen ravaged by good fortune. Amazingly reliable is the flow of stories about hugely successful people who self-sabotage with feebly pointless lies.

Take Rep. Paul Ryan's "two hour and fifty-something" marathon. ("I hurt a disc in my back, so I don't run marathons anymore.") On the threshold of being one of the most powerful men in the world at 43, one amoeba-sized hole in his resume compelled Ryan to volley a profoundly insipid question from an Australian (!) journalist with a two-sentence, two-lie answer. (He'd only run one marathon -- in more than four hours.)

In the interests of bipartisan politics and gender, Hillary Clinton's 2008 fictional tale of dodging bullets on Bosnian tarmac in 1996 is truly bewildering. Even 12 years later, someone covering her campaign would recall the president's wife taking sniper fire, don't you think? And yet, an eminently qualified candidate for the presidency apparently felt less qualified without having ever been shot at.

On the campaign trail, lying about what you've done is catching up with lying about what you'll do. But there are also frequent, less national stories of super-high achievers whose qualifications were enough for everyone but themselves. Two stand out:

Scott Thompson lost his CEO spot at Yahoo because his resume falsely claimed a degree in computer science from Stonehill College and Tom Williams resigned as Yale's football coach after his resume fudged his candidacy for a Rhodes scholarship. Both men would have undoubtedly gotten their lofty jobs without the lies. Both men could have hit delete on those lines of their resumes. Neither man did.

When we look up then down at such winners then losers of the American Dream, there's a morose conclusion: It's not so much the lie on the resume as it is believing that one's life is nothing without the lie on the resume. Just picture the warring inner emotions -- "Oh nice, you were a Rhodes candidate" -- during the big job interviews -- "a Computer Science major to boot." But great Americans can't let a weighted conscience be a drag on destiny.

Who could have predicted the desires of our most successful people could get so sketchy? It would all be easier to swallow if our rise-and-fall stories settled in more epic yet standard places: Political powerhouses undone by unadulterated adultery or billionaires by insider trading? We're okay with those. Sex and money exist to derange people. Retail CEOs torpedoing their companies by ineptly starring in their own commercials? Sure: What's fortune without fame? The lawyer on a movie line fired after loudly talking about a big case on a cell phone... perfectly reasonable. Attention deficit is an adult problem too.

But like the mogul at the pool, the lies born of personal, out-damned-spot deficiencies keep getting punier -- and yet, more sophisticated. More sophisticated in how these lies are harder to disprove and punier in that no one would care enough to disprove them. For example: It's stunning how many surgeons now claim to have been serious behavior problems growing up. With the studiousness required to get medical degrees, just how disruptive were they in high school? It doesn't matter. After always doing everything right, I need you to think I was once a bad boy and let's see you prove me wrong.

Along the same lines, here in LA, a surprising number of swimming-in-residuals sit-com writers say they turned down the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Well, maybe Jonathan Franzen could have excelled writing for "Two Broke Girls" but given the choice, would he or anyone in the world ditch literature? Dumb question. I could have been a novelist and that's that.

And as long as we're in LA, take this for rising to a new low: After a famously beautiful actress dies, stories invariably leak out from this producer or that cinematographer admitting to having had a fling with her. Suddenly, the great thing about the dead is... they can't confirm or deny.

Maybe the lack of official acknowledgment for reaching the American Dream is both its genius and downfall. It keeps our top achievers slogging away at making our nation great while melting down their values. Rewarding them with a government-issued marital hall pass, final cut over their Google pages and a cover story on the magazine of their choice might be worth trying.

For now, it's tough to see where the American Dream has room for more downslide. And yet, we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly... smaller.