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Location: Newark, Delaware, United States

My name is David P. Bellamy. The only significant thing not mentioned elsewhere here is, I think, that I almost always prefer to read a book instead of watching a movie.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Bilateral symmetry: Discoveries and ways of managing, an autobiographical vignette

In early 1948, when I was not quite four years old, my family moved to a new house my parents had had built. Before that time, we lived in a small three room house with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. My brother Tom, two years younger than I, and I were the only children at that time. Cooking was done on a wood-burning kitchen stove, which also heated the house. There were three rooms, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a livingroom. We ate at a small table in the kitchen. I sat in a particular chair to eat. It had once been a highchair, but the tray had broken and my dad sawed off the arms.

The reason I remember this is that I have always had trouble distinguishing right and left. For decades, to remember which was my right side or left side, I had to visualize myself sitting in that chair. My right side was the side closest to the cookstove. I still have a vivid mental picture of this. (My chair was white, but years later it was painted aqua, my mother’s favorite color. It was eventually thrown out.)

Perhaps because of this difficulty, I became obsessed at a very early age with my body’s bilateral symmetry. This happened well before I started school. When I learned to write, I thought that symmetry demanded that I should be able to write with either hand. I wrote much better and more quickly with my right hand, which was a little bit frustrating. Eventually, while in elementary school, I discovered that I could easily write with my left hand in mirror writing. I don’t know whether I discovered this on my own, or tried it after learning that da Vinci had written in mirror writing. I still can do so, although since I have not practiced mirror writing with my left hand very much, my handwriting is not as attractive with my left hand as with my right.

I still have difficulty thinking quickly of which side is left and which is right. This has annoyed ballet teachers, air traffic controllers, and friends riding with me and navigating when I am driving somewhere unfamiliar. With ballet teachers, the frequent line was “Your other left leg!” An air traffic controller once told me, just after I had landed, to turn right and I reflexively turned left. He said, “I am going to come out there and tie a string to that airplane and pull you where you belong." (I was in a Cessna 150, probably the smallest airplane that ever landed at this airport. The largest would have been a C-5, so “the tie a string” comment was a remark on the size of my airplane.) When told to turn left while driving, it is not uncommon for me to turn right, although this does not typically happen where there are separate lanes for left turns, right turns, and straight ahead traffic. When I exit a restroom in an unfamiliar place, I often turn the wrong way, away from where I need to go. Thinking about it now, I wonder why the side of the car the steering wheel is on has not had the same function as the high chair memory did for many years, but it does not.

I began studying ballet at age 14, in January 1959. My first ballet teacher taught us to do pirouettes to both right and left. Most of the time I did them (pirouette en dehors) better to the right. After a few years of training, I could generally do a triple to the right and only a double to the left. But on a day when my balance was exceptionally good, I could do a triple in either direction, easily. The few times I did a quadruple, they were always to the left. I don’t remember what the situation was with respect to pirouettes en dedans. I was not at all happy when later teachers taught turns only to one direction. I have always been, and I still am, irritated when I attend a ballet performance and everyone always turns only to the right (as almost always happens, of course.) I was thrilled when, in the Nutcracker we saw a few days ago, there were some turns to the left!

In modern light aircraft, the yoke, rather than a stick used in earlier airplanes, controls the side to side roll, and the up/down pitch of the airplane. It looks like a stylized steering wheel. I thought it might be difficult to use, since it was operated by the left hand. I discovered quickly that, in fact, it was much easier than when I sat in the right seat and had to use the yoke with my right hand. My left hand turned out to be much better at dealing with spatial things. This led me to try using a mouse with my left hand, as I was really clumsy with my right hand doing it. It was much easier. I still use a mouse with my left hand when possible; when using an unfamiliar computer, as in a hotel, I move the mouse to the left side of the keyboard. On rare occasions, the mouse cable is too short to do this, and it is quite frustrating. It also led to realizing that if I drive with only one hand on the steering wheel, I drive much more smoothly with my left hand than my right.

There are a few other curiosities here. I swing a baseball bat right handed. Left handed batting feels extremely awkward. However, I prefer to use an axe left handed. I can use a hand saw equally well with either hand. I bought matching left and right handed sewing scissors. These have really come in handy, although I originally bought them just out of a philosophical devotion to symmetry. I have only played one nine hole round of golf, in college phys ed class. I used right handed clubs. Since then, I have from time to time wondered whether I would have fared better with left handed clubs: Are golf clubs more like axes or more like baseball bats. I have not wondered about this sufficiently to motivate me to try another round of golf; it just does not see like a particularly interesting game.