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In the interest of otherness: Living left in a right-handed world

In the interest of otherness: Living left in a right-handed world

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Southpaw. Photo by the author

Consider the southpaw. She lives at first base, tends toward artistic genius, is only 10 percent of the population but has occupied the White House six times in the past 12 presidencies. She is scorned, reviled, regarded with the utmost suspicion. In the Romance languages, she shares a Latin root with the word “sinister.”

I’d like to shed some light on this complicated and misunderstood creature. Why has history treated her so poorly when her gifts are so great? The investigation of otherness is worthy of many tomes, none of which I’ve read, but I do have an insider’s perspective on a couple of human conditions that fall outside the realm of comfortably normal. I believe you do, too.

In my case, I’m a lefty. I’ve always liked being a lefty. It makes me proud. I grew up long before keyboards were an everyday thing, so the cramped hand dragging itself through wet ink in a left-to-right world was real. As were the inconveniently placed coils of the spiral notebook. The school desks I sat in were made for right-handers. They had what looked like a pizza paddle built into the right arm of the chair. In order to set words on paper, I had to swivel and contort until I ended up facing sideways, and to add to that humiliation I was often accused of copying from my neighbor.

Here’s a list of other inconveniences that generally go unnoticed by manuonormative folks: hot and cold water taps, scissors, fountain pens, can openers, guitars, baseball mitts and handshakes. This is not even long enough to be the short list, but I want to get left-brainers, as right-handers are, thinking. Picture yourself standing at the sink, about to wash your hands. You righties reach out and, voila! You engage with the cold water tap, the tap used most often and the one guaranteed not to deliver a scalding surprise. Consider the southpaw (we’ll get to the interesting etymology of that term in a minute). The lefty reaches out and…. You get the picture.

Scissors. Are problematic. My strategy, and the strategy of many of my ilk, is to learn to cut right-handed. In fact, lefties have a high incidence of ambidexterity, not because we were born with equal ability in both hands, but because we’ve had to adapt. (Bias note: ambidextrous contains the Latin root for “right,” and means skillful on both sides, whereas ambisinistrous derives from the Latin root for “left,” and means clumsy on both sides.) It’s possible in this modern world to find what are sensibly called left-handed scissors, but you better bring your own to the party because you won’t find them in common use.     

The same may be said about baseball mitts—it’s always BYO. I was a little squirt when I got my first mitt. I did all the things my brother’s friends said to do: drenched it in neatsfoot oil, put a ball in the pocket and wrapped the mitt with string to shape it, and put it under my mattress for a week. I couldn’t have been happier that first day out on the diamond. I was proud to be placed at first base where my mitt worked like a magnet. But then, as the weeks went by, I never left first base. I never felt the glory of catching a pop fly, or striking someone out, or scrambling at shortstop. A perennial first baseman, that was me. Such is the fate of a summer league southpaw.

And what about the word “southpaw”? The boxing folks tell you they came up with it, while the baseball folks assure you no, it was in fact born from the fact that baseball diamonds were oriented along east west lines. The batter faced east, away from the afternoon sun, while the pitcher faced west. Left-handers who didn’t end up growing old at first base were often pitchers, and the pitching arm—or hand or paw—of the left-handed pitcher was to the south. The boxers make a good argument for the fact that “southpaw” made its way into American English before baseball became the national pastime, but the details aren’t nearly so colorful. There’s even speculation that Millard Fillmore (later to be President Fillmore) first uttered the word in 1848 after being knocked to the ground by a left-handed Democrat.

Just so you can be ready for next year, know that Aug. 13 is International Left-Handers Day. They’re organized, these lefties. They even have a website. It’s dedicated to lefties and the lefty struggle, and it states clearly that “there have been times throughout history where left-handedness was used to single people out for being unclean, or even witches.” Witches? What is it about otherness that sends us running and calling names? What is it we fear when we stop and meet it? Do we fear for our lives? Our fixed identities? Is it the old idea that the world must look like us, must mirror us, and if it doesn’t we don’t exist? Here is the challenge, offered to you by this left-hander: When next you meet otherness, take it in, absorb it. Marvel at its, well, otherness. Its genius is a genius you share.

Margaret Erhart is a writer, teacher, traveler and landlady. Some of her favorite work has been as an artist-in-the-schools in Tuba City, as a firefighter and as a Grand Canyon hiking guide. She is the author of five novels and has published essays in a variety of magazines. To find out more about her work, take a look at www.margareterhart.com.

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