The King and Queen must die


The clutch pedal was already flat to the floor even before I stepped on it. No clutch. So much for moving the last of the furniture with the truck. I climbed down out of the cab, twisted, and pulled out my back. Now no clutch and no back.

The plan had been to move some furniture into a cottage for two WWOOFers who are here to help with our gardens. (WWOOFers are farm labourers who sign up with Willing Workers On Organic Farms and who volunteer to work on organic farms around the world.) We have one from Toronto and one from Frankfurt, Germany. So instead of moving into the cottage, they’ll have to keep bunking on our rec room couch and in one of our kids’ rooms.

We did manage to get the WOOFers over to the old cottage (photo of it in the early days) to help us paint their rooms, but along the way the farm gate swung loose and gouged a deep scratch in the side of our van. This incident interrupted our planned detour to rescue the farm ATV, which had run out of gas on a muddy laneway that almost—but not quite—ate the front wheel of the van as we tried to reach the ATV. I filled the tank, but the ATV battery was dead. Happily, it did start right up after I pulled the cord, which pulled my back out even further.

I’d like to say that these minor events were the only things that clouded my mind that day. Unfortunately, my parents aren’t well. Back in Ontario, my dad (who is 88) is recovering from bypass surgery after several heart attacks, and my mom (80) is on dialysis, her kidneys having failed a couple of years ago. My mom called me the other night complaining that my dad was working himself into an agitated state because he’s not allowed to drive. His doctors are concerned not only about his heart, but his eyesight—he apparently has cataracts as well as some macular degeneration. That’s not good. She’s also worried that his mental acuity is slightly impaired too, maybe from the surgery.

The odds are, as they go, so will I. That’s the subtle beauty of DNA. On the phone my mom asks how I’m doing. “You should be taking sublingual B12, the other stuff is a waste of money,” she tells me, like a Jewish mom. She runs through a list of other vitamins. I pretend to listen but I don’t.

Children with parents who live too long are a bit like Prince Charles. There’s a persistent feeling that, “my parents have sat on the family throne for so long I’m almost too old to become a king.” So how does one become the king of one’s own life if the original king is still around?

Good question. And life is full of coincidental answers. I know two people who are nearly the same age as my parents. Right now they’re both in good health and actively presiding over life, but neither one is exactly ready to move over and let someone else take the lead. And yet it seems to keep them going.

On the other hand I have a nephew and a good friend who both lost their fathers to cancer. They were both 12 years old when it happened, after each of their fathers had been ill for only six months. These two guys had to assume a greater share of responsibility at an early age, and both are pretty self-reliant.

They met when my nephew was visiting us a couple of weeks ago—and found out that they both had a lot in common and shared common interests. It was cool to watch.

Not all of us see ourselves as kings—at least not until we have kids of our own. Most parents wisely move aside to allow their children the space to grow; they are pleased that their kids are doing things that they never had. My grandfather was also a wonderful king who showed me the way, and for years I played the role of rebel king, priding myself on going where they had never gone.

If we spend too long a time playing these roles, we wear them out. The philosopher king, like Pierre Trudeau, eventually loses the sparkle and freshness of new ideas, especially when those new ideas are tested in the real world. The rebel king, like William Wallace the Scottish revolutionary, rarely assumes the throne, and pays that price. And it's not just men. The same is true for women who stay too long in their roles.

The best we can do is to slay our kings and queens before they own us completely. Again and again we have to go out alone into the wilderness to reinvent ourselves, to become the heroes of our own lives. And these ritual slayings, by accepting major changes to our lives, prepare us for the final slaying when we depart this fair rock.

Divorce is one of the few modern rituals of slaying, which may slay both king and queen, along with their young princes and princesses. Business relationships can be killing fields, too.

But there’s a bright side. When we sever relationships—and our attachment to our assigned roles—we’re free to create something brand new. If we have the courage—and if the people around us will let us.

But how do we deal with the external kings and queens who rule our lives?

The idea of kingdoms and hierarchies has been a part of the human condition for a long time—but not throughout all of human history. Kings and kingdoms only came into being after the advent of agriculture. As human activity became specialized, it became easier for certain individuals to gain control over others. Leadership became the ability to coordinate and manage the efforts of a colony of specialists. There’s a lot of literature on this. Inevitably, inexorably, the leadership became hereditary.

For a brief period in modern history, these inherited dynasties were challenged by the people at the bottom of the pyramid. First with the French, then American and most recently the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Royalty was abolished. Later, when the “robber barons” began to over-exploit the citizen-workers, the governments of the day stepped in, albeit with limited success, with anti-trust legislation to break up the monopolies.

Rockefeller, for example, simply carved up Standard Oil and created five smaller corporations over which he retained indirect control. With the rise of the global economy over the past 40 years, we’re witnessing the return of the oligarchs, only this time with the complicit approval of national governments, which are vying to attract and retain global corporations to keep their national GDPs growing.

Clif Droke, a market analyst and blogger on the website Safehaven notes this trend:

“One area that Forbes briefly touched on that actually comes closer to the truth is the “winner take all” phenomenon. This is something that is unique to our generation and something our parents didn't have to deal with. This phenomenon is discussed at length in the modern classic, ‘Winner Take All Society’ written by the economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook. Briefly stated, the winner-take-all economy is characterized by only a relative handful of men and women dominating the highest places in any given economic area, including sports and entertainment, with the top participants commanding huge salaries and leaving everyone else competing for the crumbs. As the authors illustrate, this phenomenon was relatively unknown in our grandparents’ generation and to a lesser degree in our parents’ generation. It has accelerated especially since the 1980s.

“Forbes at least acknowledged this in passing by observing that “people generally judge their fortunes not in absolute terms, but by comparing themselves to others, the super-success of the top 1% can make Mr. And Mrs. Median feel relatively poor.” Forbes cites as an example golfer Tiger Woods making $87 million last year while a top athlete of the 1960s, Joe Namath, made only $142,000 a year in his day. Indeed, the winner-take-all phenomenon of our time only serves to increase feelings of dissatisfaction among the median.

“Along with the winner-take-all phenomenon of our generation comes the corollary of economic fusion. The rich have not only become richer, leaving relatively less for the rest to compete for, but industries have merged and consolidated on a level that was unseen in our parents’ time. In our parents’ and grandparents’ day, “trust busting” was the operative word as the government was urged to break down monopolies where they existed and prevent them from arising and threatening consumers. Today, just the opposite trend is in force. Monopolies and oligopolies are actually encouraged by the government and supported at every turn. This has led to the rise of the super-corporate state with U.S.-based multinational companies such as Wal-Mart dominating entire industries where once competition among hundreds of competitors reigned supreme.”

The difficulty, of course, is that business has gone transnational while governance and oversight has not. Corporations and the few who operate them are able to skip over borders, collecting unprecedented profits along the way. National governments are now a just subset of the corporate profit and control agenda. A new generation of kings and queens are on the rise. They’re a group that can expect 25% to 40% annual returns on their investments, while we mere mortals can only hope for 5%.

In fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult for us to deal with the external kings and queens. And for the most part they are invisible to us. They live in insular worlds protected by lawyers and investment consultants.

The real answer is that this is just another rising tide in the human condition. An impending energy crisis may cause the tide to turn the other way. Or not. But history is full of examples of revolution arising from inequity and deprivation.

Whether external or internal, the king and queen must die—to allow the diversity of the colony to flourish. Ideally, it would be better if we all could become WWOOFers at some point in our lives. As a collective survival strategy, equity may be a better bet than royalty.

Time will tell.


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