THE OTHER DAY I was reading a book about boating for beginners. The author went to great pains to explain the difference between the way a boat turns and the way a car turns.
He pointed out that a car is steered by its front wheels, and pivots around the rear wheels. A boat, on the other hand, is steered by its rear end and pivots around its front end. Or near enough. What this means is that when you turn a corner in a boat, your rear end swings out and hits the jetty or any other boats nearby.
This might seem a trifle strange to neophyte boaters who, seeing a steering wheel in the cockpit of a sailboat, might be forgiven for presuming that turning it would produce the same physical actions that you get in a road vehicle.
But what interested me more was thinking about how people turn. You don’t have a steering wheel or a tiller. You don’t have wheels or a rudder. So what makes you turn when you want to? I think it has something to do with the brain. At least, that’s where the orders come from. But that doesn’t explain the physical act of turning. Do people steer themselves more like cars, or like boats?
Experimenting in my socks on the vinyl floor in the kitchen, I discovered that my upper body initiated the turn. After I turned my trunk to the left, my legs seemed to follow. But I didn’t pivot on the left foot, as I thought I might. I just sort of shuffled, left foot, right foot, and then I was going off in a new direction.
That didn’t tell me much. I thought of asking my wife to take part in my experiment. I wanted to see if her stern swung out to starboard when she changed course to port, but I thought better of it. She already suspects that my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.
I couldn’t see whether my own stern swung out or not, but I think not, because I missed the fridge and cleared the pantry door quite nicely. Of course, I don’t have a particularly prominent stern (and neither does my wife, I add hastily) so it’s really hard to tell, but my feeling is that humans steer more like cars. In other words, we probably have imaginary steering wheels that somehow make our feet turn.
I wish someone would initiate a study to find out how this all works. Nobody seems to care about how we turn. Most of us just take it for granted. When we want to turn, we just turn. We don’t do anything about it. Mostly we don’t even think about it. We just turn.
Try it for yourself. Watch your feet as you make a turn. If you can figure out how we do it, let me know. No steering wheel, no tiller. How is it possible? It seems like black magic to me.
Fortune once in the course of our life doth put into our hands the offer of a good turn.
— Sir Geoffrey Fenton, Bandello
Groucho Marx once opened a drawer by mistake in a friend’s home. He found a Colt automatic pistol surrounded by several small pearl-handled revolvers.
“My God,” he said, “This gat has had gittens.”
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