Perchance to Dream

August 2, 2013

When I was younger I was fascinated by the careers of people who succeeded early then burned out, like Dylan Thomas and Janis Joplin. Now that more than two of my threescore and ten are gone I look more to people like Robert Frost or L. Frank Baum, whose careers really didn’t take off until much later in life, although I think they at least had some idea what they wanted to do. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Anyway the stories of people who flail around for years before finally hitting it big are appealing, but also misleading. There was a time when I believed persistence paid off, and while I still believe it does I also recognize that success is really one percent inspiration, twelve percent perspiration, and ninety-five percent luck. That’s just an estimate, since we really can’t be certain. There are no biographies of people who tried and failed, so there’s no accurate way to gauge how many could-have-beens line the road to prosperity, or at least the sort of career where you don’t wake up each morning dreading the commute.

There may be seven quantifiable habits of highly successful people, but there’s an unmeasurable eighth: being lucky. It’s a revelation that I know is disheartening to people of my generation, and probably others as well, because so many of us were told over and over again by our teachers and other authority figures that we could be anything we wanted to be. My generation also grew up watching Free To Be You And Me in our classrooms and church basements, so we had the message that we could be anything drilled into us even more deeply by the likes of Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda. But I think in the back of our minds we all knew it wasn’t entirely true, just like when my third grade math teacher told us that 2+2 really equals 4.1415926, and that we should adjust our calculations accordingly, and we did even though we knew once we stepped out of the classroom the real world would be very different. Heck, even Mel Brooks had to give up his dream of being a cocktail waitress and settle for making highly successful movies and musicals instead, so what chance did we have? Admittedly the truth did occasionally come out when I was being punished for something and my parents would snap, “Life isn’t fair!” And for many of us this was even before we were aware of just how brutal the real world is, and how much random accidents play a part in determining one’s path in life.

Maybe it was comforting to adults to tell kids that we could do or be anything, or maybe it was just easier than having to explain that, while there are exceptions, for most people the egalitarian world is a myth, and mitigating factors like economic status, skin color, and even geography mean that chances are only a very small number of people will live up to their true potential and, by any measurable standard, some people really are better than others. Nothing throws this into sharper relief than a child born to a royal couple. Not that I have anything against royalty. There’s a long American tradition of criticizing monarchies, but if the culture wars and political correctness served any purpose it’s that they made us aware that the guys who founded the United States by rebelling against a tyrannical king weren’t that far from being tyrannical kings themselves, which may be why a lot of Americans, myself included, think royal families are one of those traditions that’s still worth keeping around. The only thing I really object to is when people say Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge will be normal parents. Aside from there being no standard for “normal parents”, their son, and any future children they may have, will have opportunities and advantages most of us can’t even imagine. And I don’t have a problem with that. The world may be an unequal place, but anyone who thinks that could be solved, or even reduced, by trying to make a future king’s life “normal” by taking away the advantages granted by the circumstances of his birth is hopelessly naïve. And it would be wrong, and one of the few lessons I learned as a child that hasn’t so far been proven wrong by experience is that two wrongs don’t make a right.

I realize there are a lot of arguments for ending Britain’s monarchy, the main one being that maintaining a royal family costs a lot of money, but they do try to spread the wealth around. Some people think Princess Di invented royal charity when she went to hospitals and showed that you could hug a person with AIDS and not burst into flames, but she was really improving a tradition dating back at least to the Dark Ages of the Touch for the King’s Evil. The king’s touch was supposed to heal sickness, so they were like the original televangelists, except the king would also give the sick person a little money instead of trying to fleece them. It was the least a king could do at a time when the least was all he could do for the least of his subjects, or they might start demanding crazy things like the right to own their own property. So the monarchy has improved, and if nothing else they’re a major tourist draw. Most of the arguments for ending the monarchy could also be made about Disneyworld, and I don’t see anyone calling for Mickey Mouse to be cut off. My grandparents went to England just to tour Buckingham Palace. While they were walking by the crown jewels my grandfather leaned over next to one of the guards and said, “Don’t mind me. I’m just here to see the Queen.” My grandmother told me they were watched very closely after that. She thought he’d made the guards think he was a threat. I think what really happened is that particular guard said to the others, “Check out this Yank—he’s funnier than Prince Philip.” I think the British appreciated my grandfather’s quirky sense of humor, which he was lucky enough to be born with.

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