Finding a balance in our lives

This is a good time of year for people who love basketball. The college tourneys are gearing up and the NBA’s regular season is winding down. For us folk in these parts, basketball is a distraction from our ruminations about how sick we are of winter. So there is good reason for us to get excited about the home team (Go UB Bulls!), to dress up in colors, and to play the brackets. For the most part, March Madness is supposed to be about fun, spirited competition, and, unlike politics these days, it is more about rooting for one team than trashing the Other.

When I was in middle school, March and April were terribly frustrating months. However, despite the seeming relentless snow and sleet, it was spring, or almost spring, and somewhere in the yard a little green or white or purple flower would pop up, it’s ephemeral face peering out from where the snow had melted. It was hope. So my friend Lamont and I would shovel off the driveway and play the best we could on the sloshy concrete, slipping and sliding through our awkward moves, and sometimes chasing a wild, wind-driven shot bouncing a hundred feet down the drive and into the street.

Later into the high school years the action moved away from back yards to the courts at Howard Street playground and the college. There were even a few ventures into the dark and dangerous playgrounds of Dunkirk (which provided some bragging rights). Yet in those days — the early summer of our lives — there was more at stake. The future was closing in as we had to begin to consider college and career.

One of my best friends in high school, who was burdened with the same first name, was an excellent basketball player. The other Pete was a better shooter and passer. He was smoother, more graceful, but I loved playing with or against him because it made me better. We were both right-handed, so he initiated a little one-on-one exercise in which we had to keep our right hands behind our backs and use the left to both dribble and shoot. He was better at that game too, but the idea of shoring up personal deficiencies — the process of improving on areas of weakness — has stuck with me my entire life.

Perhaps I became a bit eccentric about it, rationalizing that if I ever became debilitated on the right side and had to re-program my body this practice would have been worth it. So I forced myself to eat, drink, and throw frisbee with my left hand, to cross my arms and fold my hands the opposite way, and to play melodies on the keyboard with the left hand, chords with the right. I once suggested to a coach at a school where I worked that he require his athletes to take dance lessons during the off season in order to help them come up with new moves on the field and courts-to be less predictable. (BTW: he laughed, saying that that would be pretty gay.)

Though I never even came close to becoming ambidextrous, I do feel better a bit more balanced for having tried. I also see it as a metaphor for the way people think. In today’s polarized society, it seems we are no longer just right or left handed; too many of us have become right or left fisted. And when fists fly, there are no open hands to reach across the aisle in order to seek compromise.

Our political system, at least as an ideal, can be likened to a great bird, an American eagle, if you will. The wings represent the spectrum of opposing policies, affiliations, and ideologies. Traditionally the Right comprises those who are conservative, private sector-friendly, and believers in Adam Smith’s theory of competition. The Left contends that government bears much social responsibility. They advocate for workers and minority groups through systems that protect folks from usurers and other exploiters of the system.

I’ve oversimplified, no doubt. But this is the balance of wings that had made America fly straight. My argument is that the wings should beat against the wind, not each other. And that somehow we have to find a way to separate Truth from political agenda. Without Truth, there cannot be consensus, and without consensus there cannot be a strategic plan for protecting the country or preserving democracy.

I saw an eagle a few days near St. Columban’s on the Lake. It was spectacular — so much power and thrust generated from seemingly effortless wing strokes as it soared out over the frozen desert of the lake. As spring arrives, we will see many more of these greatest of raptors. It is hard to imagine that just several years ago there were none here, and that they were on the verge of extinction. For this salvation, we can thank a political system that actually listened to those scientists who not only alerted them to the reality of the problem, but also provided a strategy for the preservation of the species that is symbolic of our nation.

As for the other Pete — the talented basketball player with whom I climbed Mount Marcy a hundred years ago — we went separate directions, geographically and philosophically, but have managed to keep channels open. I hope he is watching the tournaments with his fist not clenched (or at least no more than is required to hold a beer) and that he is rooting for UB along with those powerhouse teams from the Southeast.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. FOCAL Point strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness and Logic.