You can feel the tension building. The big NCAA tournament is heading toward its exciting conclusion: the Final Four and, ultimately, the championship game. Winner take all. Losing teams go home, heads hung low.
But wait. There’s hockey too; it’s almost playoff time. Pro basketball is heading toward its postseason. Baseball is gearing up for its six-months-plus marathon. NASCAR drivers are revving up most weekends. Golf’s showcase tournament, the Masters, is approaching. And some of the most interesting sports news this spring is coming from the one major sport supposedly in its off-season: football, where the so-called bounty scandal is underscoring a dirty secret that has undermined the game for years: Head trauma and other unnecessary personal injuries have been tolerated, if not encouraged, in an enterprise that has evolved into an unparalleled money machine.
Sport can be a good outlet, in a way. It’s a place to channel some of the natural competitiveness that might otherwise come out in other, more damaging ways. I can criticize the latest failings of the home team, get something out of my system, and maybe find a slightly increased capacity to demonstrate a little more compassion to a friend or family member. Let’s face it, as a species—well, at least, the male side of the species—we are competitive to a fault. We evolved in an environment of “eat or be eaten,” “fight or flee,” “you got a problem with that?” These are genetically programmed behaviors, and very hard to break.
We compete with one another because we can. We love to win, to show how smart we are, to get our way, to “win the girl.” Entrepreneurs earn billions and keep scrambling for more money than they could spend in twenty lifetimes. People fight like maniacs for the right to be president because the power and ego fulfillment is so incredibly huge. Supreme Court justices assail Congress for exceeding their constitutional powers in writing a health care law—and in the same breaths they usurp the legislative role and commit the same “sin”. Madmen’s Don Draper gets any woman he wants, and then another, and still another—because he can.
It’s a time of intensity. It’s a time of figuring out who is number one. Oh, by the way, it’s gardening season, too.
Now you’re talking. What better way to spend your time than in the idyllic, pastoral, competition-free world of planting lettuce and harvesting asparagus and weeding around flowers and participating in all this healthy outdoor exercise? What better alternative to the intense, overly competitive, testosterone-fueled world of college and pro sports, or to your struggles with your boss or your quest to find any job in a terrible employment market?
Trouble is, as all gardeners surely must realize, if only deep down: That image of gardening is a false one. Yes, it’s a wonderful pastime. Yes, working with your hands in the soil can be so relaxing, so much more rewarding that parking yourself in front of the tube on a 72-degree, sun-drenched afternoon with a tub of dip and chips offering two times the average recommended annual supply of cholesterol and trans fat.
But gardening is hardly free of trouble, of competition, of intensity. Let’s face it: It’s a jungle out there.
Take my lettuce. Please.
No, seriously: Take it. I usually plant spring lettuce and spinach seeds too close together, and I have to thin out the seedlings repeatedly so that the plants don’t crowd each other so badly that they literally choke each other to death. So please come and take out every other plant, every weekend. If the thinned-out plants are big enough, you can pinch off the roots, wash off the leaves, and get about a forkful of the stuff. Worth tossing into a salad or onto a sandwich.
Take my extra lettuce plants because I don’t want to thin them. Not just because it’s hard work, but also because that work forces me to make life-and-death decisions. I must choose what survives among all these seedlings competing with each other for supremacy. I must admit: The biggest ones usually do get spared, while the smaller, less successful seedlings—okay, I’ll come out and say it: the losers—get ripped out of the soil and, usually, dumped unceremoniously into the compost pile. Pure Darwinian competition. Survival of the fastest.
I always felt that the garden was supposed to be a refuge from the adrenaline-soaked business world, the grim job market, the intense struggles for money and position and status that fill our days with anxiety, stress and the occasional minor victory that gets celebrated all too fleetingly and modestly.
The garden is supposed to be a reflection of Eden, a paradise, a shining beacon reminding us the way the world used to look and feel, the way it should look and feel. It’s supposed to be fun.
It is. And I’m determined to try to keep it that way, as much as I can. But all too often it’s not really an escape from the world; it’s a microcosm of the world. It’s a mirror that forces us to examine and re-examine ourselves, our actions, our motives, our fears, our hopes. It lets us see ourselves in ways that might not always be what we hope or expect to see. Ultimately, the garden is an expression of who we are: good people, flawed people, happy people, occasionally sad and grumpy and angry people. We are people who—at least at times–care about something outside of themselves and something more important that themselves.
Still, the question of the moment remains: Who’s number one?My answer: I am. And you are, too. We can all be number one, in the sense that we put ourselves into a position of taking care of ourselves while at the same time we take care of our gardens and our families and our planet. There’s nothing wrong in looking out for ourselves, for being self-centered, at times. As long as we don’t overdo it. As long as we keep a balance. So we can feel comfortable and confident enough about ourselves so that we don’t need to go out and pick fights, to prove that we are better than the next guy. Smiling and avoiding confrontation might be tough at times, but it speaks volumes about our ability to overcome our instincts, to be better people. We can “win” without competing.
So I guess it doesn’t matter who is number one. In fact, I didn’t even fill out an NCAA tournament bracket this year… But let me tell you, if I did, I guarantee that I would have picked Duke to bomb out in the first round and would be right up there in the money. Booya!