For some people, the urge to compete is very, very strong, such as the tall red-haired woman last Sunday morning at LaGuardia who cut in front of me at the boarding gate and did it so smoothly, expertly, no body contact, you have to assume she's been acing people out all her life. She was standing behind me and then alongside and then, although I was moving forward behind the old lady in front of me, Red Riding Hood planted her right foot in front of my left foot and leaned over and handed her ticket to the gate agent and without a murmur of apology or explanation, she slipped into the jetway. Pure competitive urge, for no prize at all, as you see every day on the freeway at rush hour, the salmon leaping, cutting each other off, to get back home three minutes earlier than if they'd gone with the flow.
A few years ago I would have felt like pulling her hair out by the roots and spitting on her shoes and saying a few words about the importance of civility, but I am over that now. I don't care if you step on my blue suede shoes, just don't steal my laptop and don't hurt my baby. I'm not the judge of other people's manners. I come from quiet, mannerly Midwestern people and evidently she was raised in a home in which you had to elbow your way to the feed trough. Not her fault, just as what manners I have are to my mother's credit and not mine.
Back where I'm from, it's considered boorish to thrust yourself forward ahead of those who've been waiting longer. We are brought up to defer, an After You Alphonse reflex, and wave others to go first at the intersection, and sometimes we use deference aggressively, as a way of encouraging fools to walk out on thin ice and fall in, so we can enjoy seeing them flounder and then perhaps rescue them. And so committee meetings in the Midwest can be torturous: The knowledgeable sit back and listen to some clueless gasbag blow for awhile and an eternity passes and the main questions are never addressed and eventually the meeting grinds to a halt and some poor soul is left to do the hard work on her own and the gasbag goes on to his next triumph.
The daughter of a friend is 15 and full of the competitive urge, anxious to start driver's ed and get on with her life, miffed about the twerp who beat her out for class president, horrified by a rash of pimples, worried that she is ugly and that her Wal-Mart clothes are not cool enough and where will she go to college and why doesn't her boyfriend call her. The other night at supper, she asked, "Is fellatio considered a normal sexual practice?" and her poor father almost coughed up a hairball.
It's an agonizing time when you feel your peers edging ahead and the cool people aren't seeking you out and almost every day somebody announces a cool new job, or a big romance, or the receipt of an awesome gift, some fresh kill from the jungle, and it depresses you. You don't want to be a loser. And you sense the fact that, in life, so much -- so very much -- is pure luck, no matter what they want you to think, and an angel may knock at your door in the person of a beggar, and you say No, and that No will resound for the rest of your born days. It is agonizing to think about.
I don't care about the red-haired woman: It's the 15-year-old who matters. Whatever happens, be observant, darling, and First Place is not a good observation point. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. There is grace afoot in the world and it will find you. You don't have to be first in line: It will be diligent in pursuing you and passing on its gifts, which are faith, hope, love and a sense of humor. The harder you strive for a gift, the more it eludes you, so let the lady step ahead of you. Keep your eyes open.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.