Thursday, February 23, 2012
Do you believe that? I always think the study is based on trick questions. or must have a sample size so small that one knucklehead in the bunch skews the results. However....
I recently had a conversation with a young woman of my acquaintance. She had just returned from a trip back east to see relatives who lived in a suburb near New York City. She had never been to New York City before, so, bravely, she took the train into Penn Station and spent the day exploring the city.
She told me that she had taken the subway and gone to visit the World Trade Center memorial. After that she had "gone downtown, to Times Square."
I wasn't quite sure what to say - did she mean directionally "downtown," which of course doesn't make sense? Or conceptually "downtown," as in a dense urban cityscape? Or did she maybe not mean Times Square but some other place?
But, nice person that she is, she actually made an awkward moment easy for me, because she caught herself and said, "That is, I think it's downtown - isn't Times Square downtown?"
And then we talked of other things.
Meanwhile, I was trying to imagine what it would be like to visit Manhattan without a basic orientation of where you are.
I've always loved looking at maps. As a kid I spent those long car trips following our progress on the map. I never visit a new city without checking a map of the place, and if I don't have a sense of where a city is in relation to states or natural boundaries like rivers and oceans, I feel a little unmoored. If a book I'm reading has a map in it, I always refer back to wayfind while I read. And sometimes if I know a city well enough, I feel as if I have an invisible map-grid in my head as I travel. I can emerge from a subway and, usually within seconds, know which way is North.
This probably runs in the family - my Mom likes to have an atlas by her reading chair, so she can place the geographical location of the events she's reading about.
Some people lack the ability to wayfind. A story recently on NPR featured a woman who was so unable to orient herself she would get lost in her own home if she awoke in the dark of night. My darling [The Man I Love] has been known to confidently head out in exactly the opposite direction of his destination. On the rare occasions I'm unable to orient myself, I find it profoundly disturbing.
I don't know whether my friend lacks the ability to wayfind, or whether she simply lacks the interest. This is the same friend who once asked me whether you could get from Los Angeles to New Orleans by taking a cruise.
But perhaps it's just that she just doesn't see the world as a geographical layout - perfectly valid, and why should I look down on her?
What about you - Are you geographically literate? Are your orientation skills strong? Do you get lost easily? Does it really matter?