I am considered to be left-handed. I say “considered” because I’m really not sure what that means any longer.
Usually we think a person is left-handed if he or she is someone who does what we consider to be life’s essential activities, stuff like writing, throwing or hitting a ball, ironing clothes, shooting a rifle, and other such everyday pursuits, predominantly with his or her left hand. Then we start to think that that hand is the person’s “dominant” hand, because that’s the one s/he uses all the time for those activities.
But suppose the dominance part just isn’t so? Suppose it’s just more a matter of what you practice? Especially if it’s a new skill, does it really matter how you perfect it?
I remember being in third grade, the teacher instructing us in a method of writing cursive that was designed for right-handed penmanship, no matter what hand you might be. That became a problem for me; I naturally gravitated to doing anything with a pencil or pen with my left hand. I have no idea why; maybe it’s all a survival skill set that stems from how you first reach for an implement to feed yourself. Anyway, the teacher kept making me try to write right-handed, and I just couldn’t begin to get a right-handed grasp on it. I went home that night and complained to my Dad, and the next day he went to my school and had a meeting with the teacher and the principal, and after that, the teacher left me alone to figure it out by myself.
I did the left-hand best I could without any guidance, since the method the class used was designed for right-handers and I was an Other. I went through the agonizing process of trying to emulate the way a right-hander did things, twisting my left hand into impossible contortions, only to smear my shirtsleeve through my compositions. Finally I figured out how to “turn things around”, to appear to be passably comfortable while trying to act normal, and nevertheless to make a decent presentation of my handwriting. Hey, at least it’s legible, although I must admit it is steadily getting less so.
Now, thanks both to getting older and to the miracles of modern technology, I can type (okay, it’s only a slowhand four-fingerstyle hunt and peck) on some handy and sleek device; as a result, you can read it, and it looks the same all the time.
But who knows? If I hadn’t been such a wuss about it back then, complaining to my Dad, I might have just had to suck it up and learn to write right-handed, just like everybody else. Hey, I might even have gotten good at it, given some brief instruction tailored to my (dis)ability. But that’s another story.
The next time I encountered the issue of handedness was when I hounded my parents into getting me a guitar. I was about thirteen at the time. Of course, at that point, no one in my limited nonmusical family circles was even considering guitars actually made for a left-hand player; if you were the parent buying one for your kid so he would stop pestering you, you basically went to Sears, Roebuck or somewhere similar, and just got an inexpensive (right-handed) guitar and gave it to the kid, who then had to figure out how to learn to play it.
Since I had never played the guitar at all, and, since I was not gravitating toward holding it with any one hand or another, like I had done with a pen, I couldn’t think of any reason to play it “differently”, to be an Other. Besides, I had already bought into the rationale that everybody was preaching to me, that rationale being that anybody who taught me how to do anything with the instrument would probably show me the right-handed way to do it (and all these everybodies and anybodies were right-handed individuals). And I still remembered my agony associated with first learning to write, so I just went about learning to play guitar as if I was a righty. In some ways, I felt this was easier; my dominant left hand was doing all the heavy lifting of making chords and notes, and the right, in charge only of producing sound, was doing so, especially when you played with a pick, simply by swinging up and down, like a monkey scratching at an itch.
And now, even though I have made the right-hand switch to playing fingerstyle, I have been practicing this process for about sixty-three years, and over time, as you might expect with so many rinse-and-repeat cycles, the techniques and habits of playing as I do have softened and smoothed into the comfortable fabric of an old work shirt. Even though I am still considered to be left-handed, I couldn’t play any lefty guitar if my life depended on it.
My best friend, a young man forty-odd years my junior, is also left-handed, and he is also an excellent guitar player. But he plays lefty. He tells me that, when he was starting out, his parents, like mine, also bought him a standard guitar, a righty, of course. But when he first picked it up to play it, he just naturally settled into a lefty playing position: his right hand on the fretboard, his left ready to pick the strings.
His father, a handyman, realized that, to be strung well and properly for playing in such a way, the guitar would need some minor alterations, reversing the thin-to-thick grooves of the bridge and the nut, those two highway onramps to the smooth commuter flow of string gauge and suspension. So he did just that, flipping and reattaching the two pieces, thus readying the playing field for his son’s style of play, rather than expecting his son to adapt his style to the field at hand, even if it wasn’t his field of dreams.
When we played together, it was as Mirror Image, a name I gave us because that's what we formed sitting on stage in an A formation: our heads near each other at the fulcrum, he leaning off in one direction, I in its opposite, our axes angled away from one another, our sheet music on a stand at the letter’s crossbar. (From having played in a few guitar ensembles during my years of study, I realized at that time how much it had facilitated the group’s action when all the players played the same physical way, like soldiers lined up in a formation for close-order drill, every rifle and bayonet pointed in the same direction.) Given how my friend plays, we needed more room on stage to spread out a bit; if we had been a guitar trio, we would have needed an even bigger stage; otherwise, the three of us would have stabbed one another as we wielded our weapons. And we would have needed another name, maybe something like Crossed Purposes.
My friend once told me he wanted to become a luthier, one who specialized in building left-handed instruments for southpaw players. And he wanted to do this for all sorts of instruments. Even violins. Remembering my ensemble days, I pointed out to him that violinists were hired primarily by orchestras to play in large string sessions, and that a left-handed violinist in such a section would probably poke out a neighbor’s eye with his or her contrary bowing, but my friend didn’t care. What mattered to him wasn’t that everybody “go along to get along”, that there be any congruence in at least physical harmony within the group effort; what mattered to him was only that each player be free to do what worked best in his or her case.
All this, in its own roundabout way, brings me back to thinking about my upcoming vascular surgery. After first meeting the surgeon, I had determined that I wanted to get to know a little about him as a person, so I could make some judgement about what kind of person he might be. The last time I saw him, I asked him to tell me about himself. Most folks are often at a loss when asked such a question, as he was, so I did the best I could to get him started. As we were talking, he had been writing some notes, and I noticed he was doing so with his left hand.
“So, Doc,” I said. “I see you write with your left hand.”
He smiled with a slight air of bemusement. “Actually, I can write with either one, but I find I prefer using my left.”
I was somewhat familiar, of course, with possible reasons for this. And my father, I discovered when I was first learning to write, could also write with either hand. He could even write two different sentences simultaneously, one with his left hand, the other with his right. Of course, by the time I saw him do this, he was already a doctor, and so both handwritings were basically illegible.
“Interesting. Do you operate as a lefty or a righty?”
“Oh, I do that as a righty. And do you know why? Surgery is actually a team effort, and I realized early on that most of the team members in a surgical unit would be right-handed, and that subsequently operating theaters would be laid out for right-handed people. If I were to perform surgery left-handed, I might either not get handed any instrument I called for, or worse, I might cut or stick somebody because I was on the wrong side of things at the time. Since I was the minority, and it was all new to me in the beginning anyway, I just figured I would learn to do it as a right-hander.”
So, here was this fellow whom I just recently met, and already we were sharing many of the same traits. Some of this may be purely coincidence, such as the fact that we are both first-born male children, and thus we are both named after our paternal grandfathers (apparently, that’s a thing in families), and that we are both left-handed. But some of this is about choices we each have made, either ones we have made of our own free wills (if such a thing still even exists), or ones we have been advised, coerced, or forced to make, given the social circumstances as dictated by writing teachers, guitar instructors, and operating theaters.
The son of immigrants from Italy, my surgeon’s father was an auto mechanic and his mother was a housewife. As a boy, he helped his father at the garage. Deciding he wanted a better life financially for himself, maybe the young man saw his ability to bleed a brake line as a transferable skill he could take with him through medical school and into vascular surgery.
Somewhere along the way, he dabbled briefly with learning to play guitar (as a righty), and practiced surgery - choosing to learn to do so as a righty - choosing, once again, to go along with the accepted way of doing things in a group, in order to get along within the function of a group he wishes to be a part of.
Maybe because I have occasionally done the same, I can understand and respect that. And so, in some ways, it seems he and I might think alike. We each seem willing to make (even if not always) what many might consider a major concession in order to function within a group we wish to be a part of.
Maybe, if that’s the case, I’m in good hands with him as my surgeon. And, as long as he continues to practice, it can be whichever way those hands may work.