The View From Here: Thoughts on the Perennial Right/Left Problem

By Adena Schutzberg

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 mind.

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!


Published Friday, December 5th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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