Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Reading

A Left-Handed Compliment: Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, co-authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life” discuss a handy topic.

When Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain take the stage for the presidential debates, attentive viewers may notice both candidates scribbling notes with their left hands. Political junkies will remember that such a curiosity has occurred before: In 1992, all three contenders — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot — were southpaws.

In the race for the White House, lefties seem to have the upper hand. No matter who wins in November, six of the 12 chief executives since the end of World War II will have been left-handed: Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton and either Obama or McCain. That’s a disproportionate number, considering that only one in 10 people in the general population is left-handed.

For years, left-handedness was not treated as a point of pride, much less a qualification for high office. Remnants of anti-leftiness are everywhere: A right-hand man is indispensable, but who wants a dancing partner with two left feet? The words “adroitness” and “dexterity” derive from the French and Latin words for “right,” while “gauche” and “sinister” derive from the words for “left.” In the New Testament, the souls of sinners who fail to meet with the Savior’s approval are sent to his left — and to eternal damnation. No wonder that, well into the 20th century, children who showed signs of left-handedness when writing were forced to switch hands.

Even today, left-handers are thought to be accident-prone (not true), and a study once showed them to be at risk for early death (it was debunked). But what about their brains? Is it possible that right- and left-handed people — and presidents — think differently?

Perhaps. Some left-handers may be better armed for the challenges of leadership because of the way their brains handle language and dexterity (sorry, there’s no other word). For nearly all right-handers, language abilities reside exclusively on one side of the brain — usually the left, which controls the right hand. But one in seven lefties process language on bo th sides of the brain, possibly because using their left hands during childhood stimulated the development of the right half. So Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama may have left-handedness to thank for their legendary speaking abilities.

The benefits of being a lefty aren’t only verbal. Many artists and great political thinkers were lefties — Pablo Picasso and Benjamin Franklin, for example. Lefties are overrepresented among the mathematically talented and are also more likely to find unexpected or counterintuitive solutions on problem-solving tests.

So maybe the number of left-handed presidents isn’t so surprising after all. But why did they only start popping up in the past 50 years? Probably because before that, many lefties were turned into righties by stern tutors and teachers, so few presidents before World War II would have been officially left-handed. In fact, the only known left-handed president before the turn of the 20th century was James Garfield. He was ambidextrous, and legend has it that he could write in Latin with one hand while simultaneously writing the same sentence in Greek with the other. Talk about a way with words.

Then again, we know of no historical evidence to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was left-handed, and he had an even better way with words. The first President Bush, on the other hand, was a southpaw but wasn’t exactly known for his silver tongue (more like a silver foot, in the late Ann Richards’s inimitable phrase). So should we add left-handedness to the requirements for U.S. presidents? As two right-handed scientists, we recommend some…evenhandedness.

What about us left-handed mousers?

That Sums It Up. Rush Limbaugh embodies the GOP tactics:

I had come to talk to Limbaugh about his role in Republican Party politics. During the primaries he assailed John McCain as a phony conservative and apostate Reaganite. Despite Limbaugh’s best efforts, it now appeared that the Arizona senator would be the nominee. There was speculation that Limbaugh would not support him in November.

“I’ve never even met the man, never spoken to him,” Limbaugh said. “I’m sure there are things about him I’d like if we meet. This isn’t personal.” He then delivered a litany of the presumptive nominee’s personal failings — too old, too intense, too opportunistic, too liberal. But, he assured me, he would be with McCain in the fall. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” he told me. “If your team isn’t in it, you root for the team you hate less. That’s McCain.”

It’s all about the hate.

Cherry Festival Time: The National Cherry Festival gets under way in Traverse City, Michigan, and it brings out the young entrepreneurs.

Summer West earned $300 when she sold pop, chips and candy at last year’s National Cherry Festival.

It’s little surprise she’ll try it again this year.

“It’s really fun because you can do it with your friends and get a lot of money,” West, 13, of Traverse City said.

Every year, the Cherry Festival invites kids ages 10-17 to serve as vendors during the Junior Royal and Cherry Royal Parades.

“We understand kids try to raise money and this is a way to allow them to do that,” said Tom Menzel, the festival’s executive director.

To be a vendor during the parades, kids have to register for a free permit with the Cherry Festival. The festival limits the number of child vendors to 100 — a figure that’s already been reached this year, because the vendors bring in no revenue for the festival.

“It’s a juggling act,” Menzel said. “We want to be fair but make money at the same time.”

By limiting the number of child vendors, the festival allows adult vendors — who pay a fee to the festival — ample opportunity to turn a profit.

They may not generate revenue for the festival, but Menzel said child vendors still add something to the community celebration.

“From a community perspective, it enhances the experience to another level when the kids are involved,” he said.

A bit of Cherry Festival trivia: according to Ernie Pobuda, the man who sold my mom the late Mustang, it was once used as the official parade car for the Cherry Festival Queen. I hope she’s in better shape now than the Mustang is.

Frank Rich: Escape to the future with Wall-E:

Let oil soar above $140 a barrel. Let layoffs and foreclosures proliferate like California’s fires. Let someone else worry about the stock market’s steepest June drop since the Great Depression. In our political culture, only one question mattered: What was Wesley Clark saying about John McCain and how loudly would every politician and bloviator in the land react?

Unable to take another minute of this din, I did what any sensible person might do and fled to the movies. More specifically, to an animated movie in the middle of a weekday afternoon. What escape could be more complete?

Among its other attributes, this particular G-rated film, “Wall-E,” is a rare economic bright spot. Its enormous box-office gross last weekend swelled a total Hollywood take that was up 20 percent from a year ago. (You know America’s economy is cooked when everyone flocks to the movies.) The “Wall-E” crowds were primed by the track record of its creator, Pixar Animation Studios, and the ecstatic reviews. But if anything, this movie may exceed its audience’s expectations. It did mine.

As it happened, “Wall-E” opened the same summer weekend as the hot-button movie of the 2004 campaign year, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Ah, the good old days. Oil was $38 a barrel, our fatalities in Iraq had not hit 900, and only 57 percent of Americans thought their country was on the wrong track. (Now more than 80 percent do.) “Wall-E,” a fictional film playing to a far larger audience, may touch a more universal chord in this far gloomier time.

Indeed, sitting among rapt children mostly under 12, I felt as if I’d stepped through a looking glass. This movie seemed more realistically in touch with what troubles America this year than either the substance or the players of the political food fight beyond the multiplex’s walls.

While the real-life grown-ups on TV were again rebooting Vietnam, the kids at “Wall-E” were in deep contemplation of a world in peril — and of the future that is theirs to make what they will of it. Compare any 10 minutes of the movie with 10 minutes of any cable-news channel, and you’ll soon be asking: Exactly who are the adults in our country and who are the cartoon characters?

Doonesbury: block the vote.

Opus: show them you care.