I used to think of a simple, non-competitive approach to life as something negative, a shortcoming.
Forty-five years ago — in a much different, less-grounded reality than I enjoy today — I was completely outgunned when my then-wife and her brother went head-to-head to see who was the brightest.
Since both wound up in medical school and both, presumably, are now doctors with year-round indoor parking, I suspect their competitiveness paid dividends.
These siblings were like those professional athletes who compete at everything they do — pingpong, cards, ring toss. You hear all the time about Baseball Player A, who can’t put his cleats on without timing it and trying to beat Player B.
Except with my ex-wife and brother-in-law, the competition had to do with calculus, organic chemistry and just about anything having to do with the material world. Neither of them cared much for having theories, speculating and indulging in the creative arts, all of which I like to dabble in.
My ex-wife’s home was in Queens, a borough of New York where a competitive edge is standard procedure for just about everything from getting into the best college and having the biggest bar mitzvah, to mundane pursuits like finding an available parking space.
If you’re not familiar with New York, parking spots are hunted the way morel mushrooms are here. And, like morels, the spots are there one moment, gone the next.
There just aren’t enough to go around.
Like all areas of New York City, the atmosphere in Queens is intense and competitive — hence the rat race visual — yet not at all like it is in Manhattan. There, residents compete, though on a plane we plebes can only dream of.
The goal there is to be more intellectual than the next guy and more cultured, not to mention better connected, better dressed and better housed at a more prestigious address.
I should write a confessional called “I Wasn’t Better Enough to Live in Manhattan.”
What with my comparatively mild temperament, I was no match for any of the five boroughs or for my ex-wife’s family. So I took a seat on the bench. If I’d been a baseball player, I would’ve been optioned to Omaha on a permanent rehab assignment.
I knew then — and now — when to avoid a scrap I couldn’t win.
I’m much happier these days, but by no means because people around me are any less competitive. It’s just that we Kansas Citians have a head on our collective shoulders and approach life differently.
Here in the nation’s midsection, the concept of “smart” is milder, largely because our culture reminds us to act civilly at all times, always maintaining a modest, considerate and sensible demeanor.
Bombastic displays are frowned upon.
While Kansas Citians can be just as competitive and driven as New Yorkers, we don’t always show it. It’s just not our style to win while making sure others know that we have, so we scale it back a notch.
Were a Kansas Citian to trash talk it would always include the words “sir” or “ma’am.”
We figure if there’s too much fire in our eyes and/or bellies, we need eye drops, antacids and to chill a while until the aggressiveness goes away.
When we moved here in 1990, Oklahoma had already sanded smooth most of my New Yorker sharp edges. I still had my moments — a childhood will do that to you — but all in all I was living on Midwestern time, largely waiting my turn, saying things like “we visited” and learning how important someone like George Brett can be to a community.
I hadn’t seen him at his best as a ballplayer (as I had Mickey Mantle, my own hero), so my image of him wasn’t a Brett highlight reel as much as the trademark pine-tar incident. That, of course, was the time he was accused of over-tarring his bat, got ejected and rushed from the dugout.
Brett might have been Kansas City’s favorite son, but his fury was out of character for a Midwesterner. He clearly wasn’t rushing to umpires in order to visit for a bit.
We may disagree with an umpire’s decision, but here in KC, there are standards of behavior that guide us toward not going completely bonkers.
Maybe that explains Brett’s enduring popularity.
Raised in Southern California, he could erupt like a volcano, shake like an earthquake and remain the city’s revered hero.
I don’t recall a time when Mantle, my own hero, lost his cool in public. Besides, it was New York and no one would’ve noticed.
That’s how it is when you’re a hero — you do the things those who worship you would like to do, but can’t. We all have some jackal in us, but learn from an early age to keep it under wraps.
Write David at firstname.lastname@example.org