Betwixt and Between
For as long as I can recall, Id always wanted to be left-handed. Though not born left-handed, and despite my partial ambidexterity, my lust for things derived from the left could not be quenched. Traditionally, left-handers are credited with possessing more creativity, intuition, and intelligence than the right-handed, and therefore they seem to start off with an edge in life; at the same time, lefties remain sufficiently rare to be perceived as one step beyond the ken of the right-defined norm. Alexander the Great, Ludwig van Beethoven, Napoleon Bonaparte, Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Ghandi, Jack the Ripper, and Queen Victoria, all left-handed, remain numbered among the most artistic, infamous, visionary, and powerful figures the world has known. Whatever light history sheds on their actionsand let me reassure you that I no more seek world domination than I desire to spree through Whitechapel vivisecting random womenleft-handed people and figures compel my attention, as if they know the secrets of the universe not revealed to right-handers.
Since I wanted to be among those in the know, I began to actively develop the ability to use my left hand, to reap the benefits from both worlds: the one in which I already resided, oriented toward the right, and the one that I wanted to join, derived from the left. As a result of my efforts to equally employ both hands, I am now partially ambidextrous: I often eat and drink left-handed; I drive left-handed; when I read I turn pages with either hand. In other respects, I am left-eyed, and run left-footed"backward" to my little league coach. When I stood on first or second base my body faced the outfield rather than home plate; I pushed off with my left foot, beginning with it in front of my right. Mr. Wilson always said, "No no no! Put your left foot in the back and face the batter, so you dont have to take an extra step to push off the base." I never took extra steps, but he still wanted me to stand the right way. My backward running stance most often came to light when I attempted stealing second or third base. Stealing seemed to be the perfectly natural left-footed thing to do, and I thought that I gained a full legs length before any chance of noticing my movement could attract the catchers eye, since I didnt shift my weight and push off with my back foot, the right gone. I had to move one of my legs at some point in order to run, and now I dont think it really mattered which one. In any event, I stole bases well, and as often as I got the chance.
My success in merging the left and the right worlds was, however, only partial. While I certainly increased the use of my left hand and right foot, I also crossed some wires, and suffered, as a result, a minor variation of dyslexia: I can, and sometimes still do, confuse the letters p, d, and b, though only when writing, and I sometimes arrange the letters in words backward, especially when typing ("ambixedrous" was a typo in an earlier draft of this essay, and I sometimes type d or s for the equivalently placed letter k or l, and vice-versa). Similarly, I shoot pool with either hand, and switch back and forth depending on the angle of the shot Im attempting (I never need to use a bridge). but I usually shoot better with whichever hand I begin playing and when I switch back and forth often during a game I tend to lose momentum as I indecisively line up shots using both hands. Thus caught between the left and right, I remain fully at home in neither.
The mixed nature of my handedness is a trait common to the rest of humanity: while approximately ten percent of the overall human population is left-handed, a figure that can vary from culture to culture (22% of the Maori of New Zealand are lefties, for example), only 77% hold the left or right hand as strongly dominant. Thus, twenty-three percent of homo sapiens wander a spectrum than ranges between the left and right hands. Children descended from strongly right- or left-handed parents tend to be strongly handed as well, even though their handedness may not necessarily match that of their parents; and, when paternal handedness is mixed, their childrens follows suit. Humans are unique in our handedness polarity, as most other animal species divide handedness equally, including other primates such as monkey, our closest evolutionary relations.
Genetically, my family claims some rather interesting ambidextrous quirks. For example, my great-grandfather Wilson had lefty genes, since at least one of his daughters, my great-aunt Genevieve, and several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins from among my maternal relatives are left-handed (theyre also Irish, so I cant attribute all of their weirdness to handedness). My father, an otherwise solid and reliable right-hander, counts money with his left hand: he holds the bills in his right, and gathers them into his left. This is odd, as Ive known regular south-paws to count money right-handed, even if its the only right-handed action they perform. My sister, Alison, soon to be eleven, flirts with ambidexterity as I do, but with greater success. She seems to be more naturally left-handed than I am. It manifests in her batting preferenceshe bats left or right seemingly at random when she steps to the plateas well as when she forms letters backward while writing. Alison writes correctlyand F still looks like an Fthough she starts from the bottom of the letter, or, as in the case of a D, though she never lifts pencil from paper and writes the letter in one smooth, counterclockwise movement. Perhaps its this backward insight that I see left-handers exhibit that makes me credit them as the secret masters of the world, shaping it with the passage of slow centuries. That, and the fact that the list of the famous and sinistral containsin addition to such conquerors as Alexander the Great and Napoleonthe philosophers and scientists Aristotle, Sir Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein: surely their efforts, spanning millennia, have guided humanity toward some greater enlightenment?
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The stealing bases, the sneakiness, the trickery derived from the left-handed edge, and the sense of secret knowledge contributed to my Faustian seduction into the mysteries of the left. Well-worth paying the price of right-left confusion to gain admission, this confusion began with medieval heraldry. Heraldic devices such as lions or griffins that faced to the right of the shield were described as dexter, while those that faced to the left, sinister. The designations confused me because left and right were assigned not by the perception of the person viewing the shield, but from the perspective of the person using it; thus left actually appeared to be right and vice-versa, just as the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice-versa. Perhaps you can see how dyslexia grew in me . . . . Sinister remains one of my favorite wordsit sums up the appeal things left-handed hold for me, and the somewhat dark, forbidding undertones that I lend to them. For example, though I presently fence right-handed, my left hand often gets in the way, as if it, too, wants a piece of the action. While left-handed fencers duel with an innate advantagedue to how a blade is held, right-handed defenders leave themselves more open to left-handed attackersto fight in a Florentine style, with both hand, wielding a sword in one, and a dagger, buckler, or cloak in the other, would be the ultimate in ambidextrous coolness: Id menace my enemies with the off-hand dagger, feint a thrust with the rapier in the right hand, and finish them off with an undercut from the unexpected left, the hand that traditionally completes the coup de grâce.
Many other right- or left-oriented words and phrases in English judge those who deviate from the right-handed norm. The connections to righteous, "correct or moral," are obvious, and parallel the phrases "do the right thing" and "the right way." Dexterous literally means "skilled" and ambidextrous "to have two right hands." Your most trusted associate is your "right-hand man," and we shake hands with our right to establish an agreement or trust, or when introduced to a stranger. The latter phrase and custom are linked: your right hand wields weapons, therefore you honor your right-hand as your strongest warrior, while you demonstrate peaceful intent by clasping empty right hands, proof that neither person harbors obvious hostility. Similarly, military personnel salute with the right hand, witnesses swear to tell the truth and only the truth by raising their right hand, and Roman Catholics make the Sign of the Cross with the right. Left-handed words and phrases do not fare so well. The word left derives from the Old English lyft, which meant "weak, worthless," and has strong ties to the Old Kentish word lyft-ádl, defined as "paralysis," but which literally meant "left-disease." "Two left feet" thus connotes clumsiness and an inability to coordinate dancing steps, such that neither foot affords any use, while a "left-handed compliment" contains more attack than praise. "Leftovers" arent as desirable as a freshly-cooked meal, and people or things get "left behind" when forgotten, and "left out" when excluded. The related "off hand" remark is made without forethought, and carries less weight than considered words. In the 1930s, on psychologist went so far as to describe left-handers as "awkward in the house, and clumsy in their games, they are fumblers and bunglers at whatever they do." Though since proven wrong, the roots behind the stigma remain: sinisters meanings have long since left the left behind and drifted into "morally wrong; malevolent; evil."
The implications of left and right have ingrained themselves sufficiently in our language to manifest in religion and myth. The left hand of damnation, the right hand of the just: at the end of the world, Christ damns with one hand, and saves with the other. The Hebraic Khabbala allows for hold and unholy emanations from God, the former from the right, the latter from the lefttogether they form the basis for the positive and negative aspects to the mystical Tree of Life. In some Hebrew legends, Adam rejects his first wife, Lilith, because she is left-handed, and the Devil signs contracts for the souls of mortals with his left hand. Hebrew tradition also considers Satan to the title of the angel who tempts mortals for God: Sammael is thus the proper name for the Devil, and descends from the Hebraic word semol, meaning "the left side." The tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand came from the ancient belief that a vein ran from that finger directly to the heart; the ring itself warded the wearers heart from the evils of the left hand. On the other hand, a "left-handed marriage" or "-honeymoon," the related "left-hand wife," and children from the "left side of the bed," were slang for an illicit affair, a maintained mistress, and an illegitimate child. I never learned any of this in CCD on Mondays after school. Did the nuns of Saint Peters know that when Saint Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a witch, her left-handedness appeared as evidence brought before the court? I wonder if the Popes knew that she was left-handed, and if thats why it took 489 years for her to be canonized as a saint.
Many cultures have maintained the right-left dichotomy prevalent throughout the Western world. In many Middle and Far Eastern nations, people feed themselves with the right hand, and clean themselves after defecation with the left. The eastern European folk belief that dying from a fall from the left side of a wagon cursed the victim to rise as a vampire originated from the same practice. Also related was the traditional Moorish punishment for theftsevering the criminals right hand; forcing the thief to eat from unclean fingers, it acted as a constant reminder of the shame of their crime. Though stealing didnt reap reward in the shifting sands of the Near East, the Islamic Moors understood and appreciated its left-hand allure when the immortalized the Thief of Baghdad in Scheherazades Tales of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The New Zealand Maori believed that when a person experienced tremors as they slept, spirits offered omens for interpretation: if the sleeper twitched on the right side, the spirit saw good fortune and long life in the future, just as the right in general symbolized strength, life, and the gods; sleepers whose left sides trembled were doomed to bad luck, and perhaps even imminent death, visions consistent with the Maori belief in the left as weak, profane, deathly, and demonic. The Nahuatl, or Aztec, tribes worshipped two deities known as "The Left-Handed One"Huitzilopóchtli, god of war, and Tecatlipóca, the god of treachery, betrayal, and black magic, who also held the title of "The Left-Handed Jaguar" in deference to his role as sorcerer of the mysteries of the night. The Nordic gods Hel (goddess of death) and Loki (god of fire, lies, and strife) were also left-handed. Loki tricked an old man into slaying another god with a branch of mistletoe, which brought about the Fimbul Winter and Ragnarok, the Nordic Apocalypse in which nearly all the gods, and much of the world, are destroyed.
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The desire to interact within both worldsleft and right, damned and saved, dark and lightto dwell in the space between, motivates my tension between the left and the right hands. I view the left as a talisman for the spiritual, the mythic. The hidden danger and irresistible allure that spawned gods and demons, dragons and faeries, descends, for me, from the left hand of darkness. On the other hand, the right hand of light grounds me in conventional reality, and offers the reassurance of the material, the practical. My belief in the possibilities inherent in a rational universe, predictable by sciencedefinable and regular in behavior, action, and reactionstem from the right hand. I no longer lust as I once did after the leftinstead, I regard both hands with suspicion, the right moreso than the left, the scientific and rigid moreso than the mythic and intuitive, as easy, right-handed answers seem to belie the truths that lurk in the depths of the left.
Because I straddle two worlds, I occasionally retreat from both. During these pauses, a clarity of vision sometimes descends upon me, as if the world pivots ninety degrees to the left or the right: everything remains the samewhere and who I am, the time of daybut the world resonates with a vibrance I do not experience on a daily basis. I seem to step out of my self, out of time, and look at the world through eyes that see better than mine. The branches on trees sway in the wind like anemone, and I recognize individual leaves among the thousands along a street. The fingerprints of tree bark and cirrus clouds reveal identities to my eyes, and I feel as if I could count the grains of sand along the Atlantic coastline, as if I could detect the movement of continental drift. During these moments of lucid awareness, I feel most at home in the world, most human, most alive. Questions of handedness, faith and damnation, doubt and salvation, fall to the wayside. I live these moment like hours. Almost dream-like, the sensation of keen perception draws the disparate pieces of the puzzle together as if I perceive the whole, the universe made manifest before my eyes. This state of balance does eventually pass, however, and I long for a return to this between, in which concerns for the left and right balance in me, and seem to balance in the world as well.
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