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Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, relaxing in his Florida office, was telling me one of his war stories. Deep in the Arabian desert, during the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, he was faced with a situation he knew would test his skills to the utmost: eating dinner.
Saudi Arabian tribesmen had invited the commander of the U.S. forces to a banquet. "You're out in the desert. They bring forth these huge communal plates of food," he said. "You reach into the plate and wad the food into a ball.
"You only eat with your right hand," the general continued. "The left hand is polluted. It's a Muslim custom." But Schwarzkopf knew something that, for him, transformed the meal from a festivity into a trial: he's lefthanded. Each time he began to relax, his left hand would reach for the food. How was he to avoid a diplomatic faux pas? "It was so awkward that I literally sat on my left hand," the general said, laughing. "I just stuck my left hand under my rear."
With his dominant hand imprisoned, the general could give no offense. But he still had the problem of a right hand untutored in the fine motor skills that this meal called for. "I would never quite get my ball wadded up enough and would dribble rice down my front as I tried to get it down my mouth," Schwarzkopf admitted. His hosts graciously ignored his dining habits, and the alliance continued.
The general's dilemma is just one example of the challenges that beset the 10 to 15 percent of humankind--including Schwarzkopf and myself--who are left-handed. Persecuted for centuries as spawn of the devil and teased for being maladroit, we're just now hearing that the world really may be out to get us.
"Lefties Die Nine Years Earlier," world headlines gasped in 1991, when psychologists Stanley Coren and Diane Halpern published their findings. Left-handers have a shorter life span, the researchers concluded, not only because a world designed for right-handers makes lefties more accident-prone, but because the physiology of many left-handers makes them more susceptible to disease. Although lefties howled in outrage (who wants to hear that kind of news?), the controversy has led to new awareness of the odd lot of left-handers. More righthanders are getting a grip on left-handers' experiences (what's so tough, righties have frequently asked, about using scissors, corkscrews, power tools?), and scientists are beginning to understand that left-handers really are different, but not in the ways long imagined.
As if right-handed tools weren't enough for left-handers to deal with, there's a question of reputation. Throughout history, the left side of the body has been associated with darkness, ill-fortune and evil spirits, while the right has been linked to light, luck and virtue. The Bible, the Talmud and the Koran are rife with distinctions between saintly righties and sinister lefties. Buddha sends his adherents down the right-hand path to Nirvana; Satan sits to God's left and is often portrayed as left-handed. In separating the sheep from the goats, the Bible tells us, God consigned the unlucky goats to His left.
Language, too, reflects these rightward leanings. From the Latin sinister ("left") to our own "left-handed compliments," the left is synonymous with bad news. The English word "left" comes from the Anglo-Saxon lyft, which means weak or broken; the Oxford English Dictionary catalogues a spate of unflattering synonyms for "left-handed," from "defective" and "doubtful" to "illegitimate." Even the Gypsies, who one might think would understand--being a minority themselves--use the Romany word for left-handed, bongo, to refer to an evil person.
Social and ritual gestures follow suit; the right hand is used for …