On being left-handed
This week I barked my knuckle on most of the radiators in my house while bleeding them. Well, they both ended up bleeding. No, not because I am a woman and have no aptitude for odd jobs around the home, but because I am left-handed and all radiators are designed to be bled on the right. Meaning you have to hold the key in your right hand, and do some coordinated and quite physically demanding turning before a murky squirt of water leaps out at you and soaks the carpet.
Kenneth Branagh * Lewis Carroll
I am left-handed in a 90% right-handed world. This may as well be 100% right-handed, because who is going to design things that won’t work properly for nine out of ten of us? I’ll try not to let this post become a leftie rant, but have read that left-handers tend to die slightly earlier than the rest of you because of the cumulative stress of living in a right-handed world.
David Bowie * Jimi Hendrix
‘Oh, but you must be so creative!’ you cry. When you’re not clicking your tongue in impatience as you wait behind me at a ticket barrier, with me either leaning across my body to feed the ticket into the slot on the right, or trying to get my right hand to aim straight first time.
Benjamin Britten * Albert Einstein
I’ve included bits of lists of some famous left-handers. Sometimes looking through a list like this is cheering, after so many negative experiences.
Neil Armstrong * John McEnroe
I work with language, and it slinks around meaning like a cat who can smell bacon. In English, the meaning of ‘right’ as ‘correct’ seeps into other areas; the Latin ‘sinistra’ meant both ‘left’ and ‘unlucky’, and has emerged into our language as ‘sinister’. If someone is dextrous, it’s a compliment, even though it derives from the Latin ‘dexter’, meaning ‘right’. If you are lucky enough to be ambidextrous, you have both sides as good as the right! We’ve nicked the French words ‘gauche’ and ‘adroit’ with unsurprising meanings. Cack-handed isn’t a nice word, is it? Southpaw is an Americanism. A superstitious relative told me to throw spilled salt over my left shoulder because the devil was there. (Has anyone done a study on prevalence of left-handed atheists?)
Martina Navratilova * Judy Garland
So, to the life of a left-hander. For me, it started in school. I couldn’t cut shapes properly because the scissors wouldn’t work. My early geometry was approximate because I couldn’t see exactly how long my line was along my ruler. And don’t start me on fountain pens. Quite apart from the actual letter shapes being much easier to draw from the right side, if you don’t move your left hand away from the word you’ve just written it ends up as an interesting series of Rorschach ink blots. It’s either squishing your elbow into your side to get your hand under the line, or hooking it above and parachuting your letters in from the top. I spent all my school years with a blue smudge down the side of my left hand.
Paul McCartney * Ringo Starr
School humiliation didn’t stop in the classroom. Games lessons were sometimes awful. I was sporty, could run fast, and loved it. Then we started hockey. There were no left-handed hockey sticks at our school. I had the choice of either playing on the right side (meaning I missed every ball I aimed at) or playing on the left side with the curved bit of stick at the front (meaning I mis-hit every ball I aimed at). I was not picked for the team.
Cole Porter * MC Escher
A bit later on I started learning the cello. I know Paul McCartney plays on a left-handed guitar, but that wasn’t really one of my options. The advantage is that I can do trills and twiddly bits with my left hand on the fingerboard quite easily. The disadvantage is that if I’m stuck in an orchestra doing very fast triplets I have to think very hard or my right arm gets topsy-turvy with the triple beats.
Raphael * Jim Henson
Growing up, you need wine. Corkscrews are right-handed. Yes, I quickly adapted to my environment and learned to use them, but it’s not ideal. My favourite party game is now offering to lend my Swiss Army knife left-handed corkscrew attachment to a drunk right-hander and see how long it takes THEM to work it out. Tin openers. Serrated knives. Cake forks. Fish knives. Some are more essential than others, but they are all right-handed.
Kermit the Frog * Steve McQueen
Go into any bank and you see tethered pens. Tethered on the right. Tethered with a metal chain that is in no way stretchy, so I either use my own pen or scrunch up to the right, hoping there isn’t a customer next-door who thinks I’m trying to nick their PIN. And while we’re on the subject of banks, what about cheque books? They can’t go obsolete quickly enough for me: trying to get the spine to lay straight enough for a left-hand to write on the stub is impossible. Most of my old cheque books look as if my account has been hacked by a very angry spider.
Marilyn Monroe * Ayrton Senna
Then I went to work, and my early accidental career was as a temp (well, I couldn’t have worked a supermarket checkout till, tapping all those prices in with my right hand). I worked in many different offices, at many different desks. Each had a mouse on the right of the computer keyboard. For the first few bookings I unthreaded the wire, put it on the other side (after moving coffee cup/post-it detritus), switched the mouse buttons over in the computer preferences and away I went at 200 words per minute. After a few weeks, I simply couldn’t be bothered, and compromised by merely moving the mouse but leaving the buttons in their original settings. I use a right-handed mouse with my left hand. Get me. Just don’t get me to input a load of numbers, cos the keypad is on the right.
Leonardo da Vinci * Barack Obama
I haven’t time now to go into the difficulties I found when travelling round India, where you apparently have to eat with your right hand and wipe your bottom with your left. I can leave you with an inkling of the joy I found when I discovered that London had a shop just for us. Anything Left-Handed was the first shop of its kind, and it was like coming home. They now deal entirely online, but every time I hear of a friend’s child who is left-handed, I browse there and send some gifts that perhaps a right-handed parent would not have thought of. Genuinely, why would they? I hope the current generation of left-handed school kids are having a better time than I did.
I shall now go off and be brilliant and creative with my weird brain.
My Dad was beaten at school until he used just his right hand so I suppose I had a better life as a left hander. I just used to lose marks for smudging my writing with my left hand.
I’ve learnt to do certain tasks right handed over the years but a ‘simple’ thing like cutting bread sometimes isn’t that simple. My ex GF (right handed) would say things like ‘You don’t do it like that, you do it like this.’ Well of course you do, if you’re right handed and the bread knife is designed for right handed people!
It’s a minor but constant inconvenience which 90% of the population don’t really think about. The only consolation is knowing that for all their genius, people like Ayrton Senna and Albert Einstein probably struggled to open a tin of beans too.
Always shocks me to hear of punishments of left-handed children. Even my best friend at school had been made to use her right hand at her first school. That was in the 1970s!
My Dad is 93 so it is a very long time ago! The nuns and priests would hit their hands as soon as they picked anything up with their left hand.
Teachers tried to get me to do things right handed at school in the 70s but I can’t remember being *made* to do anything.
As a humble right-hander, I had no idea that the world is so skewed because it never had to occur to me. I love the idea of a left-handed bottle opener and can think of a fair few right-handed people it would be the perfect present for!
There’s no reason for any right-hander to know any of this! The corkscrew present is a great idea: even if they are sober it’s fun to watch.
“Chequebooks can’t go obsolete quickly enough…” tee hee. But I do sympathise, I suppose because my other half is a leftie, so I’m not as oblivous to the issues as some righties. But interestingly he’s right handed in certain situations, which means I quite often ask ‘do you use your right or left hand for this?’ which he never thinks is a silly question. Incidentally I wrote a little sonnet on the subject (forthcoming in Ink Sweat & Tears).
I hadn’t thought about things like corkscrews or tethered pens. Nice post.
I know what your other half does: we’ve all had to adapt. I can use scissors with my right hand (had to do that first); now I have LH scissors I can do both. Makes wallpapering into a corner a dream! Love to read your sonnet.
I want to see that sonnet! About half of my family, AND a good many of my husband’s family, are left-handers — further, I teach handwriting (and I have taught myself to write left-handed: both to know what they are up against, and to better help them).
My handwriting-help site (below) indeed has a left-handers’ page.
Kate Gladstone — http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
I wish my teachers had been a bit more like you. Thanks for the site link – I’ll have a look at it!
Lefties in my family so empathise. Several people (including the midwife who tried to help me breastfeed my first child) have told me they thought I was left-handed because of my awkward body co-ordination (charming) and at my wedding I handed over my right hand for the ring (believing it was my left). Perhaps secretly I want to be a leftie – would certainly be in good company. Great post!
I think you can consider yourself an honorary leftie. Awkward body co-ordination – sheesh! Welcome!
My dad is 70 and had his knuckles rapped till he wrote right-handed. Which he does (badly) to this day. I’m left-handed and have spent the last ten years primary teaching. We’re better now – all the scissors were for left and right hand use, so no-one gets weals like I used to as a kid – but still not enough attention is paid to things like differences in letter formation and ESPECIALLY to computer mouse use. Most children, like myself, end up just learning how to use a right-hand mouse, on the right of the keyboard.
Thanks for this post, spreading the word! I hadn’t heard the longevity statistic but I *did* once hear research reported on the news that left-handed people were better problem-solvers as they had built better neural networks for this, due to having to cope with a right-handed world from the off. That’s the kind of stat I like …but sadly I can’t remember *who* did the research!
Glad to hear primary school is improving! I know the computer mouse is still an issue: heard via kids of a friend. I’m really pleased to hear teachers like you sounding so knowledgable (obviously, from your experience!) and clearly helping to improve the situation still further. Thanks for taking the time to comment: I appreciate it.
Best invention for this leftie? The wireless mouse.
One of my mother’s friends who was slightly older than her was very insistent that I should be forced to be right-handed. It turned out that is what had happened to her.
Wow. Isn’t that like an abused person being more likely to abuse? A shocker. And yep, with you on the wireless mouse, although it doesn’t deal with the right-click buttons. Mind you, I use a trackpad now which doesn’t seem to mind.
You had me at ‘Kermit the frog’.
I write left-handed, but do many other things with my right. When I started conducting I put the stick in my left hand, but changed on the advice of a friend and now couldn’t do it any other way (Donald Runnicles and Paavo Berglund are the only two lefties I can think of). And come to think of it, I do open wine with my left.
So I’m a sort-of leftie. Does that count?
I know another left-handed conductor who also had to change to his right to conduct: do you think it would really matter? I’m sure players could get used to it. Maybe I’m just biased. For what it’s worth, I think it’s the wine-opening that is the giveaway. You are a leftie!
Lloyds send me a left-handed cheque book, no extra charge. It never fails to attract comment. Have you tried asking for one?
I’m fairly right-handed but for some reason I write, and use a fork/spoon, with my left hand. I’m an ambidextrous drinker, so my main problem with wine is at the dining table, when I can’t remember which hand I’m drinking from, and (being apt to switch the glass from hand to hand while drinking) usually forget on which side I’ve put it back down. I often end up drinking my neighbour’s wine. Oops.
Left handed conductors are absolutely fine – provided they do the mirror image of a right handed conductor, i.e. in 4/4 the 2 swings across the body, 3 swings out. Have played for a young lefty who conducted with the baton going in the direction a right-hander’s baton would go, i.e. swing out on 2, across the body on 3 – an unmitigated disaster at important entries. I think (and hope) it was an experiment on his part.
One advantage – I can write with my left hand while using a mouse / holding a phone with my right. Office productivity is high…
I did have l-handed cheque books for a while, but changed banks & no more. Ah yes, the drinking of someone else’s wine! Terrible error. The conductor you mentioned is very interesting: I wonder why we are so much more comfortable with a mirror-image than not. I agree with you though – especially from where I usually sit stuck at the side in the cellos. Thanks for taking the time to comment here.
Isabel, I’m still looking forward to that sonnet. Do you have a link to it?
Robin has just sent me a link to her poem on Ink, Sweat & Tears: http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=4235
Cheers to the lefties! I’m sinister, too. My favorite pastime is watching righties trying to use my left-handed mouse. Hilarious. 🙂
We must be careful not to be too cruel.
Fab piece; thank you for tweeting this year as had missed it last. My biggest irritation? ‘Right handed’ ringbinders at conferences – near impossible to annotate all those papers and PowerPoint printouts as your hand bangs the binding constantly… Have resolved to be assertive and ask the next one I go to (nicely of course!) if they can set one up left-handed for me – ie simply punching the right, not left, sides of sheets! But am yet to meet anyone else who complains about this, so I may just be a fusspot!!
Been through soooo much of this, specially the constantly having to change the mouse over if you sit at a new desk.
Cordless kettles were the biggest godsend. All those years of having to take the cord out just so I could pick it up with my left hand & not electrocute myself!