Thursday, April 19, 2012

Left-Handed Compliment

I am one-third of the way through my year-long project in handedness. For the last four months, I have consciously used my non-dominant left hand to perform dominant-handed tasks wherever possible. This experience has given me a bit more patience, a new appreciation for how our hands work together, and--unexpectedly--a certain joy in writing things by hand.

The tasks we typically perform with the non-dominant hand are often just as complex as dominant-handed ones. As I struggle to manipulate objects with my left hand, my right hand must learn to position the objects being manipulated. It sounds simple, but this project has proven equally challenging for both hands. Even something as simple as knotting shoelaces takes some concentration as my oh-so-dextrous right hand fumbles with holding the correct loop in the correct location for the left hand to thread.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?!"
Often, when I tell someone I am left-handed for the year, their first question is, "Even when writing?!" I actually found that a relatively easy transition. It still takes me almost twice as long to write with my left hand than with my right. This might be a bigger problem if I handwrote more than a dozen characters in the course of the average day.

Last week, a customer asked me to label a number of items for her, and I did so with my new-found deliberation. She was, as it turned out, in a hurry to get somewhere, but said nothing as I went to work with a Sharpie. When I had finished, she burst out in effusive praise of my penmanship, calling it 'spectacular', among other things.

Having learned to read and write English during a summer-long crash-course as a teenager, I do not have what most people would consider 'spectacular' handwriting. I favor unremarkable block print, ideal for filling out forms that give you too much space for date of birth and too little for address. To this day, I only know enough cursive to sign my own name.

I might have asked her what she found so spectacular about my blocky letters, but she was in a hurry to get somewhere and left me mystified. Was she a pharmacist, inured to abysmal standards of legibility? Perhaps she noticed that I had paid a great deal of attention to writing and thought it deserved reward? Did she just like praising people? Where was she when my high school English teacher called my handwriting a 'disgrace' in front of the class, threatening to fail me unless turned in my next assignment in cursive?

Up until then, I had only ever been complimented on my penmanship while studying Japanese at university. Sensei was delighted with my handwriting, especially when we got to kanji. Kanji are logograms borrowed from Chinese, which is my native language. Penmanship had always been my weakest subject in Taiwan, but it did not take much proficiency to outshine the American students, who had to learn an entirely novel script.

In any case, the lady's praise for my left-handed writing--however unexpected--awakened in me a kind of wonder at the intricacies of vision, thought, and movement involved in writing anything by hand. Meditative writing is, for me, no longer confined to the realm of brush calligraphy (which I practice sometimes, however poorly). Every time I take up a pen now, I remember that the whole phenomenon of writing is...well, pretty spectacular.


  1. I would have strongly suspected sarcasm, but then again, if I were in a hurry, I would've written my own labels, or at least offered to help.

    1. I am admittedly bad at detecting American sarcasm, but she seemed pretty sincere, and did not hurry me while I was writing.

  2. Would love to see a sample of your writing (both left and right, and kanji) if you felt like posting a screenshot or photo. Reading this post makes me want to try using my left too. Is it getting easier? I'd be curious to know at what pace.

    1. I wrote the phrase in the photo above with my left hand. My right-handed writing is nearly identical; the difference lies largely in speed.

      Yes, it does get easier. The first couple of weeks were tough, but once you get into the habit, it is not too hard. Your nervous system will also adapt to it over time, but that takes longer.

      Using your left hand is inconvenient even after you adjust, though, because many products are designed with right-handers in mind.