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by Julia Sneden

The family of man seems to be divided in many peculiar ways, not the least of which is the oddity of handedness. Most of us favor one hand over the other. Others are so solidly right or left handed that it's all they can do to pick up a toothbrush with the opposite hand, and holding the brush and actually using it with the weak hand would be impossible. On the other hand (!), some of us are ambidextrous.

My father was a natural lefty, but had been made to write with his right hand. The pedagogical wisdom when he was young insisted that right was preferable. He spent the rest of his life with his pen in his right hand, but using his left for everything else. Oddly enough one of my sons repeated his right-to-write but left-for-all-else pattern, even though no one ever forced the pencil into his right hand. When he was in third grade, his teacher, who deplored his poor penmanship, decided that he was a natural lefty, and encouraged him to try switching the hand that held the pencil. He was able to make the switch, but alas, his handwriting looked exactly the same, no matter which hand he used. (The ability to switch did, however, come in handy when in eighth grade he broke his right arm).

By the time I started teaching, teachers had long been instructed not to interfere with a child's handedness. All that was important, we were told, was that children demonstrate a firm preference for one hand or the other. By then, Science had announced that the side of the brain that is dominant controls the opposite hand. We were to be concerned not by which side of the brain was dominant, but by those odd children whose brain dominance hadn't yet become set: i.e. children who were ambidextrous. Lack of clear dominance was considered to be an indication of immaturity, and possible learning disability.

These days, teachers are being asked to encourage development of both sides of the brain by the ways they teach (it's called, in edu-speak, "teaching to all modalities"). Ambidexterity is in danger of being in vogue, which is fine by me. While using my left hand to write is a bit laborious, I am one of those freaks who can put a pencil in each hand and placing them side-by-side on the page, write moving left with my left and right with my right, producing mirror image words. It's a skill not worth much unless you want a lot of attention at cocktail parties (I don't). I've never tried to hone it; the skill is just there.

Sometimes I wonder if my ambidexterity isn't a symptom of the mental stasis that has plagued my life. Decision-making isn't easy for me. I have no problem voicing an opinion; the real difficulty is in forming an opinion. Except in the most extreme instances, choosing sides is all but impossible because I always see clearly the opposing points of view. A friend who is astrologically inclined explains my condition by my birth sign, Libra, with her balanced scales. (I, who have battled a weight problem all my life, have always hated those scales). I'd prefer to think that my ability to consider all sides of a question comes from a well-balanced brain.

When I sat down to write my New Year's column, there I was, dangling between the two sides of my brain with ill grace. Herewith, the result of that hang-up:

Some Thoughts for the New Year;

A left-brain, right-brain dialogue

Left Brain: Happy New Year! Thank God 2001 is over. I thought it would never end!

Right Brain: Don't be ridiculous. The year flashed by, and I never got around to doing any of the things I fully intended to do.... like losing 20 pounds, learning Spanish, cleaning out my sewing closet...

LB: I know that you're the intuitive, creative side of us, but really, how can you be so shallow? 2001 was a year that c-r-a-w-l-e-d by. Its slowness was agonizing. The first eight months seemed to drag on forever, with all the hoo-hah in the press about Clinton's pardons, the items taken from government offices during the change of administrations, the whole Gary Condit feeding frenzy, dire predictions concerning George W.'s competence, yaddah yaddah, yaddah. And since September 11, of course, we've been badly wounded and engaged in a battle with terrorists who may or may not be in our midst, but in any event will be almost impossible to find. It's enough to make each day seem like an eternity.

RB: Girl, there's a reason you're known as the analytical, verbal half. My intuition tells me that we'll find Bin Laden eventually, and until then, we've got to keep our chins up. Forge ahead. Don't let the bad guys slow us down. Spend. Work hard. Create!

LB: Oh, puleeze! You may be right about Bin Laden, but don't overlook the fact that he's just one of many sources of terrorism. If you analyze the situation calmly, you'll see that finding him is only the beginning of a solution that may take a hundred years to achieve. And why should I get out there and spend when I don't know if I'll have a job next month?

RB: Well, worrying about that won't make any difference. It happens or it doesn't, and either way, you'll cope. What worries me is all the encroachment on our civil liberties. Benjamin Franklin said: "When you give up small freedoms to ensure security, you are likely to find yourself neither free nor secure."

LB: Well, now, be logical. How can our law enforcement people do their jobs if their hands are tied?

RB: And if you untie their hands, might they not grab the innocent along with the guilty?

LB: The innocent have nothing to fear.

RB: Tell that to the people of Middle Eastern origin whom the FBI has been holding with absolutely no evidence. Tell that to the Nisei who had their property seized and were kept in camps during World War II simply because their ancestors came from Japan. For that matter, tell that to the American Indians who innocently made treaties that the US Government very quickly broke.

LB: There's always ambivalence in these situations. We may be erring, but at this point, I'd rather err on the side of caution. After all, on September 11, America lost its innocence.

RB: I am sick of that phrase! I can remember hearing it after Pearl Harbor, after each of the assassinations of the '60's, at the end of the Vietnam War...and remember My Lai? I mean how many times can innocence be lost? Our grandmother impressed upon us very clearly that you lose your innocence only once!

LB: (blushing) I think she referred to a different kind of innocence.

RB: It comes down to the same thing. Innocence gone is gone. And anyway, we Americans pride ourselves on being a savvy, sophisticated, can-do kind of people. Why should we want to be considered innocent?

LB: Well, you have me there: Innocence is a lovely word, but perhaps it would make more sense to say that what America lost on September 11 was its complacency. Up to then, we'd been pretty untouchable, at least on our own soil. And now, like it or not, we're in a battle to determine how humankind will define itself for generations to come. Will extremists destroy the tolerance and rationality of the world's good people? These extremists seem to exist on all sides of every conflict. They exploit the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots to serve their own purposes. Egged on by the fanatics, the have-nots appear to be about to have their say, and I expect we need to listen carefully.

RB: You're singing my song, even if you can't keep it short, pithy and in tune!

LB: We are, after all, two halves of the same brain. One would hardly expect us to differ vastly, although....

RB: Oh, do shut up! It's snowing out there, and you want us to sit here and talk to each other? Let's put the soup pot on "Lo," grab some mittens, and enjoy the day. Carpe diem, dear Lefty. Tomorrow will get here soon enough.

LB: Well then, grab a shovel and get to work. At least it's a start on burning calories. Remember that 20 pounds you wanted to lose? I just hope it all comes off your side.

RB: Right. And a Happy 2002 to you, too!



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