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April 14, 2010

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Our first stop after landing in Austin last week was a Tex-Mex joint we remembered from our previous trip — food is a major part of our love of Austin, so why postpone the pleasure?

After that, we decided to visit Zilker Park so Caralena could run around. We hopped in the (giant, size of a studio apartment in NYC) truck — it was the only “car” available after a little mix-up at the airport. David was fiddling with his iphone to get his fancy, talking GPS app running when I told him that we didn’t need it — I remembered the route to Zilker, or at least the general direction, from two years prior.

“Okay,” he said. “Which way?” The truck was not moving.

“Back to Cesar Chavez, towards downtown,” I said.

“Okay, which way is that?” he asked.

Granted, we had just arrived in Austin. But I could have told David to drive straight, right, left, or in reverse and he wouldn’t have thought twice. This was when it struck me that David — who is a CEO and a computer programmer and who pretty much can master anything he puts his mind to, from gardening to chess to whatever else he picks — has ZERO sense of direction.

This isn’t a pick-on-the-David post; I have seen it many times. Last year, when we visited David’s sister in PA, David was driving while his sister directed us to a pizza place in the next town. After dinner, we got back in the car, and David asked which way he should turn out of the parking lot.

I was shocked! How could you not know which way you had driven down a road a half hour previously? How could you not know whether you turned right or left to get into a parking lot? I’m fairly certain I could have navigated us all the way back to their house, down rural back roads, through corn fields. But when I expressed my surprise, David’s sister laughed and said that she is the exact same way when it comes to a total lack of sense of direction — and she is a smartie, too!

Clearly, a sense of direction has nothing to do with intelligence and it’s not something you learn; you either have it or you don’t. As a quick test, answer the following question to yourself, without thinking for more than three seconds: What direction are you facing right now? (I am facing south. That took me 1.5 seconds.) Now try this one: Point in the direction of your nearest post office, the one you visit. Was that easy or difficult?

In and of itself, this isn’t all that interesting; some people can roll their tongues and others can’t, but who really cares? It becomes compelling to me, though, when I think how this relates to how people envision space differently. I was very aware, when we were in Austin, of where I was not just within the city, but where we were on a map of the United States. And no matter where I travel, I constantly update this visual picture in my mind, of where I am in relation to other points, and where I am in relation to where I usually am, in the northeast.

The one time I got tripped up was when we were in CA last year. The confusion stemmed from the fact that, living on the East Coast, I am programmed to think that if the ocean is on your left, you are headed south. Obviously, this rule did not work in CA, and I remember a couple times where I had a second or two of a vertigo-like feeling, as my internal GPS re-configured itself.

So, when it comes to your sense of direction are you a Lise or a David? Is it part of my OCD that I always know in which direction I am facing? Perhaps. But I can’t imagine walking or driving around without a bigger picture in my mind, of where I am. For better or worse, I guess I am like my own little GPS.

  • Maybe it's because you grew up in NH and my sister and I grew up in NYC taking the subway to school. I had no need to learn directions, I knew train lines and Manhattan is one giant grid. :-)

  • lcarrigg

    It's possible that living in a city could play into it, but I still think it's something you either have or your don't. When I lived in NYC I think I was even more aware of where I was on the giant grid. Don't worry, I still like you. ;)

  • Meganne

    I'm almost afraid to make a comment- but I am a “Lise” and A is a “David”, so I completely appreciate this post. Enough said.

  • jeffreytill

    Ha ha. Yea, David sucks. Not only does he do directions dumb but he's smelly too. I just burped.

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