The View From Here: Thoughts on the Perennial Right/Left Problem
I've always been jealous of the toddlers with the
sneakers that light up in back with each step. I've always wanted a
pair. I'm quicker to admit that than I am to admit wanting sneakers
with "right" and "left" inscribed on each toe. To this day I have to
move my right hand in a writing motion to distinguish my right from my
left. My right hand is the one I "write with," though these days I
spend very little time with a pencil or pen in hand.
I recall being in the "special" group in grade school that was
regularly tested on our "b's" and "d's" followed by our "p's" and
"q's." I could not keep them straight until about third grade. Right
and left dogged me as I went through three years of high school
marching band. Like many of my peers, I'd put arrows "-->" or
"<--" in my notes on the music to be sure I turned the correct way.
When I made the big time in graduate school and marched with the Penn
State Blue Band, there were times we didn't use music at all,
specifically in "Pre-Game" where we would "write" PSU then LIONS on the
field. In that situation, I had to remember which way to go. I recall
that during my second game, when I was participating in pre-game, there
was still one spot where I always turned the wrong way. I simply
coached myself to "turn the way that seems wrong" and it worked out
fine. Good thing, because if you did go the wrong way (which was common
among freshmen and "newbies" like I was), the upperclassmen simply
pushed or dragged you the correct way!
The right/left problem reared its head in college, too. Due to my poor
coordination (I've never made a team that included the term "ball" in
its name), I decided to row. There was no ball to catch and once you
got the hang of it, it was repetitive, just like running, something I'd
been "successful with" in high school. But, there was still that
right/left or more correctly, starboard/port, problem. In rowing, the
complexity was exacerbated since in sweep rowing (where each rower
wields one oar in a boat of four or eight), the rowers face "backward."
The good news was that once I was trained as a "starboard" rower and
learned "green" means starboard, left and right didn't much matter; I
simply knew I was a starboard, end of discussion. How does one remember
the colors, boating words and directions? I was taught: "Green"
is a long word and "starboard" is a long word, so they go together,
along with "right." "Red" is a short word and "port" is a short word,
so they go together, along with "left."
The real right/left challenge at our boathouse was not in the boat, but
off the water. To get the shells (i.e. the boats) in and out of the
very narrow aisles and onto their racks, we needed to tip them up at an
angle. That meant four of the eight people carrying the long vessel
held it at shoulder height and the other four, on the other side, held
it at waist height. Now, how do you communicate which group goes up and
which stays at waist height? Someone, long before my time, solved that
challenge, not by using right and left, nor starboard and port, nor
green and red. The tradition at the University of Chicago was to call
either the "Zoo side" or the "Lake side" to be moved to shoulders or
waist. The Zoo referred to the Lincoln Park Zoo where waking lions
often greeted us at 5 am. The Lake side referred to mighty Lake
Michigan. Our home boathouse, the Lincoln Park Boat Club, sat in
between the two. No matter what, people could keep those landmarks in
I flashed back to those terms today while in my "urban rebounding"
class. For those not involved with the latest fitness trends, urban
rebounding is a cardio class where you bounce on mini-trampolines. (I
am not very good at this as it involves coordination of arm and leg
movements beyond my capacity, but thankfully, no balls!) One part of
the workout involves turning in quarter, half or full turns to face
different sides of the studio. When the instructor introduced the moves
she outlined the four cardinal directions: "front," "parking lot" (the
view out the window), "back" and "gym" (the view out the inside
window). She'd tell us to turn to one or the other of these. I noticed
how everyone turned the correct way when she used these cues. Later in
the workout, we did the same moves, but she called out "left" or
"right." Several of us went the "wrong" way.
I am pleased that one of the challenges still being explored in the
navigation technology marketplace is the "which way are you facing"
issue. A device needs to "know" so it can point you left or right. It
turns out that any of several technologies can get a fix on your
location, but a few others are needed to determine how you are holding
the device (could be upside down) and which way you are oriented. (This
Nokia article explains how
one of the company's handsets uses such technologies.) Perhaps with a
device like this I will finally be in control of left and right, though
I doubt this solution will make it to the football fields, lakes and
gyms of the world!