Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lost among the familiar

I have this peculiar inability.  I seem to be entirely unable to form mental maps.  I can, thank heaven, follow a regular old map, but without one, I'm sort of perpetually lost.

We visited family in Northampton, Massachusetts over the holidays, a town I've been to many times.  No matter how many times we go, I don't seem to be able to figure the place out.  I was driving on our way home, and as we were winding through the streets of Northampton, I was completely relying on my wife (the woman has an internal GPS system, I swear) to get me back to I-91.

I can't even begin to estimate the number of times I've been lost.  My usual method when I'm lost is to drive in a straight line until I see something familiar, which works okay around Ithaca but would not work so well in, say, Nebraska.  And your definition of "familiar" and mine probably differ somewhat.  You'd think that the stores and so forth in Northampton would be familiar by now, and in one sense they are; in fact, they're too familiar.

All physical landmarks pretty much look the same to me.  In Northampton, there are lots of brick buildings and 19th-century wood frame houses in pretty pastel colors.  Around here, there are fields and cows and houses and silos and so forth.  It's not that nothing looks familiar; everything does.  So, in the previous paragraph, by "familiar" I mean "so weird and stand-out that it's the only landmark of its kind in this entire time zone."  I only know that I'm approaching our exit from I-88, for example, because there is this huge structure -- I think it must be a radio transceiver or something -- that has been dressed up to look like a tree.  It is about twice as tall as all the other, real organic trees in the area, so the effect is not so much "Natural" as it is "Mutant Redwood from Outer Space."  It's unmistakable, and can be seen from about ten miles away.  That is the kind of landmark I need.

So, I constantly feel like I'm lost among the familiar.  When I'm in Manhattan it's especially bad, because almost all the streets meet at perfect right angles, and everywhere there are stores and businesses and people.  And they all look alike.  I think the only two sufficiently stand-out landmarks in Manhattan are Times Square and the Public Library, but if you only have two reference points and are not even all that sure where those are, it's really not all that helpful.

There's also the problem, when I'm on foot, of never knowing which direction I'm facing.  At least when I see the mutant redwood I'm always coming at it from the same direction.  If I'm seeing Times Square, and I'm trying to find my hotel, I have to know (a) what direction I'm seeing Times Square from, (b) what direction the hotel is from Times Square, and (c) what direction I have to turn to be pointed in the direction referenced in (b).  Usually, my choice is (d), walk in a straight line in some random direction and hope the hotel magically appears.  So far, I've been lucky, but mostly that's because when I'm in an unfamiliar place, I make sure to keep Carol less than five feet away from me at all times.  Occasionally, however, Carol will let me walk a little ahead, and just watch to see what I do when I get to a street corner.  This is when things get interesting.

On one visit to Manhattan, we were returning to our hotel from a night at the theater, and I asked Carol what direction the hotel was from our current position.

"North," she said.

So when we got to the next street corner, she informed me that we needed to turn right.  So I did.  And then I said, "Now what direction is the hotel from where we are?"

She looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  "It's still north," she said.

"It can't be," I said, adopting the really annoying Patient Teacher Voice I bring out when dealing with an especially slow student.  "You said it was north before, and then we turned a corner.  It can't still be north."

Carol stared at me, open-mouthed, and finally said, "Um, Gordon?  The position of the North Pole does not change every time you go around a corner."

Oh.  Right.  I guess I knew that.

It's a little frustrating that I was seemingly born without the Directionality Brain Module, but I guess I make up for it by my extra-special Tune-Remembering Brain Module and Name-Recall Brain Module.  All in all, I can't complain.  But if I ever turn up missing, don't be surprised.  You might suggest searching in Nebraska.

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