WHERE AM I ?

 

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“Wasn’t that our turn?” Rob shrieked, as we sped past our exit and drove into the unknown darkened superhighway.

Tossing the map aside I scanned the large green signs above me in hopes of getting us back on the right path.

“Well?” He asked impatiently.

“Don’t talk,” I said, “it makes me nervous.”

“Not knowing where we’re going is even more nerve-racking!”

I’m sorry to say this is an all too common occurrence.

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I have never understood maps. I love them, I find them attractive, but I can’t read them; even the ones decorated with pictures of little 3-D buildings. I get lost in the pictures and can’t find my way to where I need to go.

In elementary school I struggled to understand geography lessons. My eyes would focus on the icons decorating the map: corn in the Midwest, cotton in the South. I would daydream about who might live in this spot. Did the girls play with dolls? Did they eat fried bananas for breakfast? I would make up a story about a family and when the teacher called on me I would always have to answer. “I don’t know.” I promised myself I would do better next time but it was pretty pointless.

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In college I took a cartography course which was almost laughable. The instructor, an adjunct (in a time when they were less common) painstakingly showed me, yet again, what I was doing wrong.

“Your drawings are well…beautiful,” he would say. “But they’re all wrong.” He paused thinking he had hurt my feelings. “Does that make sense? Does any of this make any sense?”

I only wanted to take the class because a friend of a friend had a clear box of cartography pens on his desk. I had never seen pens like those. They were filled with loose ink that dripped down into tiny needle points.

The instructor probably thought that teaching an evening class to college students would be a nice break from toiling away for long hours, alone, at his drafting table. I sometimes wonder how this group of highly trained draftsmen transitioned over to modern technology and gave up their pens. Such beautiful pens.

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When I am driving alone to a place I have never been, a certain panic sets in. I can follow line by line directions much better than visual ones. That’s interesting to me because I have great spatial reasoning skills when something is right in front of me, when it’s physical. But hand me a two dimensional line drawing that points the way and I’m hopeless.

So when GPS came along it felt like a match made in heaven. Until it wasn’t. Same two dimensional map, but now it’s smaller. Tiny really, and you can’t get a lay of the land which is the only thing about paper maps that worked for me. You can only see a little bit in front of where you are and it’s moving. This fact makes it hard to look backwards.

“Is the blue dot on the green line?” Rob asked in complete frustration.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t find the blue dot.”

“I can’t drive and navigate!”

Then there’s “the lady”; that is, the lady in the phone who tells you where to go. Until she stops talking which can happen more than you’d think. Or she never shuts up and repeats the information six times over and you turn her off thinking, you so “got this,” and then you don’t.

When Jackson was graduating from college I left my family at the school to drive to the airport to pick up my sister, Susan. Her flight was getting in an hour before the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. We had plenty of time and Rob had given me a Garmin GPS for Mother’s Day the week before.

“The clerk in the store said this was the best one on the market.”

“Great, “ I said ripping it out of the package like it was the thing that was going to change my life forever.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty to throw that away,” Rob said picking up the directions. “You better read this instruction manual all the way through.”

Reading instruction manuals is something Rob does, not me. He also only seems to get lost with me in the car. My feeling is that if the manufacturers really wanted you to understand what they made, they would put it down in neat, bulleted points that fit on one sheet of paper creating something one possibly could understand.

So with Susan in tow I punched in the coordinates for the college and off we went. The Garmin voice told us to turn, drive and turn. The voice decided for some arbitrary reason to take us off the highway and even though I knew better, I listened. After all she was the authority.

“This must be some sort of shortcut,” I assured Susan.

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We drove on. We meandered into odd neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, rich gated neighborhoods and industrial districts where we passed numerous body shops that didn’t sell gas. All the while the Garmin voice kept telling us, “Turn here and here.” And with each turn she added on the number of minutes it would take us to get to our destination.

“Look it’s five minutes longer than it was ten minutes ago and we’ve been driving the whole time,” I screamed.

We hit every red light imaginable between the airport and the college. At each stop the time until our arrival increased.

Susan stayed calm and tried to make the whole situation seem funny. “It’s very hard to argue with her,” she said. Our father used to say there was something funny in every situation, even someone’s death. I wasn’t laughing.

We arrived in time to hear the President of the college propose a toast to the inductees and then make a hasty retreat. I learned about the ceremony weeks later from the pictures Rob had taken.

“I want to get a hammer and smash the Garmin.”

“You didn’t read the instructions,” Rob said.

“No, it doesn’t work. I hate it and I don’t want it. I’d rather be lost.”

The Garmin went back to the store and we carried on as before. If our destination was difficult and we were together I drove and Rob navigated.

Then two years ago I bought an iPhone. I didn’t buy one to text or read my mail or take photos. I bought one because of the GPS. It seemed they had gotten most of the bugs out of the system. I would plug in the address from my current location and off I’d drive, carelessly listening to music while the voice interrupted occasionally to ensure I was on the right path. All was right with the world. Until it wasn’t.

Early in the Fall we were driving home from New Jersey and Rob asked me to plug the directions home into the phone.

As we headed towards the George Washington Bridge he asked me to check the traffic and compare the upper and lower levels.

“It’s not showing up.” I said.

“Well, find out. I need to know if I go left or right.”

It still wasn’t working and he had to make a guess. As we were crossing the bridge he asked me which way to go. Again it wasn’t working.

“You’re doing something wrong,” he shouted.

“I can’t help it,” I cried.

“What am I supposed to do?” he exclaimed.

I thought about it for a second and said, “Didn’t you grow up here? Don’t you know the way home? What if we didn’t have a GPS, what would you do?”

He laughed a good long laugh. “You’re right,” he laughed again. It was as if he had been hit by lightening. I shut off the phone. Rob’s strong sense of direction kicked in and he navigated us home GPS free. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments. We were using it even when we didn’t really need it.

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Two nights ago I punched in the address for a bowling alley in a town I had never been to. I was driving along and the voice kept repeating, “You have arrived, your destination is on the left,” but I couldn’t see a bowling alley. It was hidden down a long drive I hadn’t noticed. I drove back and forth past the entrance. The lady in the phone never got excited and never wavered she just repeatedly told me to turn around. I pulled over, looked at the map on the tiny screen and saw my mistake. But unlike most people I had to study the map for several minutes to understand that unnerving question: Where am I?

When I arrived at the bowling alley I saw one of my friends and told her how hard it was to find the place.

“Oh I agree,” she said. “I got lost too.”

“Did your GPS forget to tell you to turn left into the service road?”

“No, I didn’t use one. I just pulled over and asked someone for directions.”

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ANOTHER TIME

Raising Quinn meant that November 1st was always just the beginning of costumes. The point of Halloween for her had never been about candy, although she liked it, the point was always to become someone else. A lot of people like dressing up but she retained her costumes or parts of her costumes and wore them into the year. For Quinn almost anything had the potential to become a costume. Once she donned the outfit they were no longer costumes but alter egos. She had many.

Quinn dressed up to turn a chore into an alternate reality. On more than one occasion when I had sent her into the basement to sort the laundry on a Saturday morning I’d discover her dressed in an old dress of mine with her head covered in a scarf, wrapped in a makeshift shawl and kneeling on the cold basement floor, the laundry still unsorted.

“What are you doing?” I would ask wondering why this simple task was taking so long.

“A crust of bread for a poor old washer woman?” she’d plead, as she slowly lifted an article of dirty clothing from one basket to the next. The gesture implied that she didn’t have the strength to carry on.

“Oh for goodness sake,” I’d say. “Just finish up. It’s cold down here.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” she’d croak in an old lady voice. “This is where I live.”

Sitting and reading the Sunday paper you might look up and find her decked out in an outfit that resembled an Italian troubadour, mustache and all. She’d dance a bit and sing old fashioned ditties while twirling a cane and never coming out of character. The character went away when she was good and ready to change.IMG_1336

She’d show up at the dock ready for a swim as Jackie O. complete with glamour glasses, a head scarf and a handbag waiting for the swimmers to look up and notice.

When she was very small she was usually some type of fairy. She wore wings but she rarely flew. She liked to crawl into small places and make them her home: the crawl space, the deck trunk or under a desk. Whenever we traveled and went into a public restroom I could gauge the quality of the bathroom by Quinn’s reaction. If it was nice she would say, “This is our house.”

“That’s your room,” she would say pointing to my stall,“and this is mine.” When we were washing our hands she would add, “This is the kitchen.” If the bathroom was luxurious it was often hard to get her out. She would lounge on one of the couches which represented the living room. I’d have to remind her that Rob and Jackson were waiting for us at the table. When we left the bathroom it instantly ended.

Her characters were never limited to our personal lives but expanded into the larger world. For her ninth birthday all she wanted was an authentic Gryffindor robe. The four of us traveled to Abracadabra on West 21st Street to make the purchase. This in itself isn’t so unusual but Quinn threw away the package before we left the store.

“Oh, you’re not going to wear that?” Jackson protested.

She ignored him and attached the clasp as the long black robe draped over her slight frame and engulfed her. For an added effect she pulled on the hood.

“You’re honestly not going to let her walk around like that,” Jackson said imploringly to Rob and I.

“It is a bit warm,” I suggested.

“Oh what do you care?” Rob asked both of us snapping Quinn’s picture and on we went.

It was a warm September afternoon and she walked the streets and rode the subway as a character from Harry Potter but also looking something like a Druid. It was Manhattan-no one noticed.

Another time she went to Thanksgiving at Rob’s sister’s house dressed as a pilgrim wearing a bonnet, a gray, floor-length dress and a long, white apron. I can only imagine it took some effort to transcend the actual situation and pretend she was in Salem instead of a room full of loud Italians eating lasagna.

As a family we loved to go to Old Sturbridge Village. We liked to stroll the dirt roads through the living museum and talk to the interpreters stationed along the way. We stopped in each building and listened to the actors talk about their day in old New England. The interpreters dress in period costumes and make the 1830’s come alive for the visitor. As interpretive villages go they do a pretty good job. The docents do everything from killing and cooking chickens over an open fire to firing muskets and working as the local tinsmith. Some stay in character and some speak as historians. Tourists snap their picture as they explain the operations of grinding corn in an authentic gristmill or how banks used to function. Visitors often ask the interpreters to pose for a snapshot.

Quinn spent parts of these visits quiet and pensive as she detached herself and imagined living in this village. On one trip she spied a girl’s dress from the era inside the expansive gift shop. I remember it was pretty expensive, so it was going to be a Christmas present. She wore it a lot and liked to trudge across the frozen lake alone with a basket in hand because the conditions were often tough for a young pioneer girl.

The following summer on our now almost annual trip to Old Sturbridge Village, Quinn packed the dress, a prairie bonnet, small handmade basket, a pair of ankle moccasins and her American Girl doll dressed in a similar outfit. In the morning while we were distracted with showers and camera bags she dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder or something close to it. She asked me to braid her hair and then gently placed the old fashioned bonnet over her head.

“I am not walking around with her,” Jackson cried as we were getting ready to leave for the museum.

She looked so happy all we could do was tell him to get over it.

“Well don’t walk anywhere near me,” he declared. But after an hour or so she was getting a lot of positive attention and he stopped thinking about it as a bad thing.

At the end of our second day we walked through the covered bridge dodging the horse dung and began the slow shaded climb up from the lake towards the visitors center and gift shop. A woman with two young daughters going in the opposite direction stopped Quinn.

“Can my daughters take a photo with you?”

Quinn had spent the last two days in a sweet dream, living in another era. This woman was validating her authenticity.

“Of course,” she said.

Quinn posed politely framed by a girl on each side of her while their mother said, “Say cheese.”

“Thank you so much, “ the woman gushed. “How long have you been working here?”

“I don’t,” Quinn said.

“Really?” the woman said a little disappointed.

“Sorry,” I jumped in and then added. “But you made her day.”

“Well you fooled me,” she said before thanking us and moving on.

“Do you think she’ll still want the pictures?” Quinn asked as we walked away.

“Absolutely,” I assured her. “She can say anything she wants about those pictures, you’re the real deal.”

Quinn smiled and walked a bit a part from us the rest of the way. There were still a few more minutes left to be of another time. Her family who looked like three clumsy tourists hitching a ride to her wagon shouldn’t ruin it.