Friday, October 03, 2008

The Maps In My Head

by Michael Dymmoch

Every culture seems to have a vocabulary and symbols for direction. We use north, south, east and west, up and down, diagonal, and right and left. We say clockwise or counterclockwise. (Wonder how long this will last now that everything’s digital.) Other cultures say toward the ocean, mountains (or other highly visible landmark) and sun-wise. Creatures without language apparently have notions of direction, though they may not be able to communicate them. (Chimpanzees appear to be one exception—at least those who’ve learned human sign language. Honey bees are another.) Most animals manage to avoid getting lost when they’re out and about. Carrier pigeons usually find their way home. Migratory birds navigate between continents with few directionally based mishaps

We humans appear to learn most of our navigation skills; some of us even manage to communicate directions effectively to others; Florida is southeast of Chicago, L.A. is southwest. Go east to get to Europe, West to Hawaii. Or Turn left on Halsted and go seven blocks to get to Division. Take I-290/Eisenhower to Mannheim Road and... Most of us see our place as the center of the universe, the world’s navel. (Chicago is—for sure!—the center of the country.)

The directionally challenged usually manage to get to the mall, gas station, and grocery store—whether or not they can tell you by which street or in what direction. After we’ve been somewhere a few times, most of us can navigate the route on auto pilot while simultaneously primping, texting, eating, or plotting murder. We get into trouble when our intended route intersects with a more familiar subconscious route map, and autopilot takes over. Those of us who navigate by the sun have trouble in strange places on overcast days. And sometimes when we’re given directions involving left and right instead of north or south (or vice versa).

Ever get somewhere and realize it wasn’t where you set out to go? Or try to give someone directions and realize you don’t know any street names? Do you get lost a lot?

BTW Marcus got a very nice write-up in the Fall/Winter edition of The Men's Book Magazine. Congratulations, Marcus


Anonymous said...
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Marcus Sakey said...

One of the things I love about Chicago is that it's sensibly laid out and easy to navigate, even just visually, using the skyline. Besides being handy, it leads to some interesting juxtapositions--like, say, follow the length of a single north-south road and you'll see a microcosm of the city as a whole, from blasted industrial areas to crumbling rowhouses to manicured lawns. It's actually a pretty interesting experiment if you've got an afternoon.

And thanks for the shout out on the magazine!

ab said...

Since you ask: I am able to take long walks in my city (Stockholm, Sweden) and find my way home again, although I blunder about thinking of a lot of interesting stuff, not noticing people I know trying to say "hello!"

But I am perfectly capable of ending up in the video store just because the door was open, when I intended to go to the grocery store...