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Sinister Ballad of
a Middle-Aged Man
Inconvenienced by
the Way of the Left Hand

by Peter Wetherbee

The experience of breaking my right wrist has been as enlightening as it’s been a total pain in the butt. It turns out everything I care about doing is with my hands, plural. To add insult to injury, I'm finding out I'm a conservative stiff — which is definitely not how I like to think of myself.

It all started a few weeks ago when I wiped out and busted up the radius bone in my right forearm. For six weeks I have a cast from elbow to knuckles that leaves me barely able to do the OK sign with my thumb and index finger and little in the way of strength or dexterity.

The cast gets in the way of things like using a pencil or clicking a mouse. I tried moving the mouse to the left side of the keyboard but was surprised how hopelessly awkward it felt. Simple chores like cooking and laundry take more steps because I have to dumb everything down to one-handed versions of things that were normally a breeze.

It was also annoyingly humbling to receive a glimpse into my own deep-rooted prejudices as a right-hander. Simple things like brushing my teeth are strangely disorienting when attempted with my left hand. Mundane activities become baffling lessons, and I’m forced to use literal and figurative muscles that are definitely not accustomed to what I’m asking of them.

I've always admired the idea of being ambidextrous, whether talking about athletes, fellow musicians, or basically anyone who can swap hands doing whatever they do. I myself have little in the way of switch-hitting skills, but I think it would be cool to be able to throw a ball equally well with either hand. So it was dismaying to find out that I'm decidedly reactionary about my polarity. I always thought I was a flexible, open-minded guy, but the rigidity with which I cling to right-handedness betrays deep underlying inertia.

Suddenly I have to confront a serious Achilles’ heel! Who knew? I've been a carpenter most of my life, and certainly pounded plenty of nails with my left hand when reaching a difficult spot. I’ve likewise tried using various other tools in the opposite hand when logistics required, but my ability to switch hands with any finesse (or safety, when it comes to bigger tools) goes downhill fast.

I play various weekly gigs as a guitarist and drummer, and it was music that most brutally revealed the extent of my new-found handicap. The first thing I did when I got home with the new cast was to see if I could still play anything, to mostly disastrous result. Guitar was out, or at best painfully awkward, so I reluctantly cancelled a couple of upcoming shows. Hand drums were not even an option without a free right palm, so I was forced to figure out what else to do for my regular job as accompanist for African dance classes.

I've never given much thought to the idea that everyone has a “dominant” hand (10% of the population is left-dominant, if not actually left-handed; see footnote 1), so it was a rude awakening indeed to face the fact that I am straight-up right-handed. Playing a simple pulse with a gourd shaker in my left fist was a mind-scrambling experience. I had anticipated it as a no brainer: my right arm is out of commission, so I would switch to shaker, which I normally play one-handed anyway. If anything, I was actually worried I might get bored, but boy was I wrong.

At first it just felt awkward and strangely disorienting to play kolomashi in my non-dominant hand. Though I was sitting, I felt a little off-balance. Little twinges betrayed muscles in my left shoulder that don’t regularly get used, and various ligaments throughout my arm became apparent as I struggled with unaccustomed clumsiness. I never imagined I needed — let alone had to synchronize — so many parts of my body to play a simple shaker.

I found myself outside the fluid comfort zone of familiar actions. After a lifetime of practice, I was suddenly once again just a simple beginner. A pseudo-intuitive idea that we have some kind of internal symmetry — or even a hope that binary form would follow function reflexively within my own body — simply went the window.

Of course my little harangue here in no way compares to the kinds of real crises that people face every day with injuries much more severe than mine, but I can't forget that it’s only as a result of my broken wrist that I have been “invited” to see things in a new way. The shaky, crooked letters I pencil with my left hand look like the work of somebody still teething, and I look forward to regaining the use of my right hand in the months ahead. I would love to have even a fraction of the facility with my left hand that I enjoy with my right.

One of my all-time favorite musicians is the late left-handed virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. It's strange to admit, but as much as his playing knocks me out, it nevertheless weirds me out a little to see films of Jimi performing. He frets with his right hand and strums with his left, which makes me slightly queasy to watch. It’s just different for me to watch a lefty string-puller, and it feels like it simply makes more sense somehow to play guitar the normal way. It appears I'm facing a bias here that I wish I didn't have.

The implications and limitations of my predisposition dawn on me. It's hard to explain, because although I would never in a million years wish Jimi had played right-handed, I know in my gut there's a tiny selfish desire that it was more comfortable for me to enjoy watching how he plays. So there’s more bias.

It also occurs to me that I spend a lot of time playing music on a kind of auto-pilot, where muscle memory allows me to not have to think much about what I’m doing while I play. This may or may not be a good thing, and it has certainly caused me to reconsider my own mental and physical comfort zones. I guess the signal from brain and heart to fingers is at least semi-autonomous at this point, like the impulses that control walking and breathing. The idea of playing music in a routine way, however, seems closed-minded to me, like not being able to think outside the proverbial box.

I think my biggest epiphany has been about what it must be like to be left-handed in a world that rejects that tendency in ways both subtle and overt. I get to do things according to my preferred, naturally-dominant hand, but I realize this is not how it is for southpaws. In fact, right-handed chauvinism seems to have been pervasive throughout history. Superstition has vilified left-dominance, and contributes to traditions that force lefties to conform and pass as righties.

The word “sinister,” which comes directly from Latin for left-handed ("sinestra"), certainly carries no positive meanings, any more than “goofy foot” (a contemporary term from the world of skateboarding) sounds cool. The French word gauche, a word usually used with scorn, also means “left.” But there's more: “dexter” is Latin for what 90% of us are: right handed. Dexterous is good and sinister is bad, and these are the fundamental adjectives that label the preferences we are born with. And “ambidextrous” actually means “right-handed both ways.”

Leonardo da Vinci was a flagrantly left-handed artist and inventor in the right-handed world of 16th century Italy. Perhaps it was his overwhelming genius that allowed him to flourish un-“corrected,” but da Vinci nevertheless faked right-handedness as well. Did he do this because even he had to endure societal pressures to conform? The church certainly didn't look kindly on lefties. When presenting his designs and theories to the public, he wrote and sketched “normally” for a right-handed world. Yet when sketching and writing his extensive notes to self, he wrote backwards, right-to-left, with his left hand, in what is known as “mirror writing.” I'm pretty sure he painted the Mona Lisa with his left hand.

Michaelangelo and Einstein popped up in a quick internet search of famous lefties, and arguably all left-handed people use extra skills, out of necessity, on a daily basis. I found out when traveling to Ghana last year that left-handedness is seriously discouraged there, to the extent that waving with your left hand is universally considered an insult. I wonder how many people in the world are forced to adapt and adopt the polarity that isn't their natural preference? Although there are various genuine health and cultural elements involved in thesocietal norms here that are way above my pay grade, it nevertheless strikes me as a real loss.

I remember encountering the idea of left-handedness as a child while first using scissors in elementary school. I came across a funny-looking pair of scissors that didn’t seem to work right. The teacher explained that some kids use different scissors to cut paper the same way most kids do with regular scissors. It’s chilling to realize that certain power tools (such as the ubiquitous hand-held circular saw found at every construction site) would be difficult and dangerous to try to use with my left hand. Lefty users have no choice but to confront these obstacles head-on when they first learn to do any number things, whether it’s scooping ice cream or using a can opener (see footnote 2). How can the world be so rude to left-handed people in so many ways? If nine out of ten humans are right-handed, it’s a brutal democracy that calculates and enforces the convenience of the majority upon the other 10%.

I even find myself guilty of promulgating the cult of right-handedness here — albeit unwittingly — while writing this article: I used the word “dexterity” (trying to mean “well-coordinated”) in the second paragraph above, before I had learned its original meaning!

I wonder if children in Ghana have access to the other type of scissors. The luxury to be right-handed in a world that has been molded and designed for me is a gift indeed. As George Clinton says on Funkadelic's first album, “Freedom is being free of the need to be free.” Depending on one's natural or enforced hand preference, this means very different things. People who have to struggle with polarity can’t help but see what I couldn’t until very recently: there are two ways of doing things with your hands. One way is natural and the other is more difficult. So when it comes down to it, there's only one right way for each of us. Right?


1. Wikipedia: "Bias Against Left-Handed People" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bias_against_left-handed_people

2. "23 Soul-Crushing Problems only Left-Handed People Understand" https://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/lefties-unite?


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Editor's Notes

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• Peter Fortunato -
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• Peter Wetherbee -
Sinister Ballad of a
Middle-Aged Man

David S.Warren -
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• Rhian Ellis -

• Garriel Orgrease -
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One for Miriam

• Nancy Viera Couto -
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