An Ode to the Left Hand

line drawing of person with giant left hand
Tim Lahan

This article was published online on April 17, 2021.

I raised the drumstick, brought it down, and a dreamworld opened beneath me.

A dreamworld, to be clear, of incompetence. A dreamworld of crapness and debility. A slump in tempo, an abyss. I was sitting at my practice drum kit, attempting one of the signature moves of the late John “Bonzo” Bonham, of Led Zeppelin: triplets with a left-hand lead. Done properly, with the correct dosage of taste and power in each stroke, left-handed triplets will conjure an extraordinary kind of jazzy thunder. Done improperly, they sound like a wardrobe falling down stairs. When I lead with my right hand, my triplets are okay. Not Bonhamesque, not Bonzoid, but okay. But when I switch to the left

Being human, reader, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Righty or lefty, you know that if you lead with your nondominant hand, whether you’re brushing your teeth or dismantling an unexploded bomb, the clichés of maladroitness will swarm you: the fists of ham, the fingers of butter, the multiplicity of thumbs.

Why this built-in asymmetry, this out-of-whack distribution of motor skills? The biology of handedness is complex. But the psychology, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward. It goes like this: Inside your nervous system lives a shadow person, a shadow you, shy and clumsy, dislocated, light-fearing, not nearly as good at things as you are. An underachiever who would very much like to be left alone. And you get in touch with this person, immediately and directly, by using your weaker hand.

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Work the left, say the sports coaches. Learn how to catch a ball, throw a punch, make a shot with your weaker hand. Shouldn’t the life coaches say it too? By summoning your gauche self, the muzzy and foot-dragging character who rises and sleeps with you, you’re doubling your capacities. Treat this character with a stern kindness, with a reproving warmth. Insist on discipline. Marvel, humbly, at the slowness of the progress.

And if you—which is to say, I—can eventually pull off the sweet Bonzoid clatter of a clean left-handed triplet, then maybe, who knows, never say die, I can one day tackle the unfinished novel currently jutting out of my psyche like a lump of the Acropolis. They lurk on the shadow side, these possibilities. In the murk of the as-yet-untrained. In the cunning of the weaker hand.