Several months after moving into my current home (and the first I’ve ever owned), I was setting up a heating oil delivery and the operator asked for my nearest cross street. I couldn’t answer her question. In fact, I couldn’t name any other street in the neighborhood, but I was too embarrassed to admit it.
Instead, I deflected my ignorance back with a clarifying question. “What is a cross street, really?” I asked her, “Do you mean the closest road, the road you’re most likely to take to get here, or the nearest major road?”
I didn’t know any of them, but it bought me enough time to check Google Maps for the answer.
Having opened the philosophical box, I realized that thirteen years later, I’d finally gotten a real-life value out of my liberal arts degree.
But the embarrassment stuck with me as I realized, despite any pride of homeownership I might feel, I really have no idea where I live, and can’t even clearly describe how to get here.
It hasn’t always been that way. I used to know exactly where I was and how to get pretty much anywhere both literally (I was a pizza delivery guy in a pre-GPS world and knew every street in the Farmington Valley) and existentially (or so I thought, as a teenager and well into my twenties).
After the initial shock wore off, I determined that I was okay with not knowing where I am. In the past, I knew it all and was confident that my sense of direction would never steer me wrong. Now, I have an iPhone.
My sense of direction is like a game show contestant, terribly uninformed and entirely driven by feelings.
This befuddles many people.
I have a coworker who loves to talk about the different ways one can travel to work. She often asks me which route I took to get to the office on a given day and I tell her I’m just not sure, the same one as always.
I know there is a 7 involved. Route 76 or 72, maybe? It really doesn’t matter as long as you keep an eye on the brake lights in front of you and remember when to turn.
She hates that answer. Most older people do.
Jenny’s ninety-two-year-old Grandfather came to visit us last summer. The conversation on which routes he took to get here occupied the first two days of his visit. The rest of the trip was spent discussing the best way to get back home.
My father is in his seventies and is pretty much the same. Whenever he visits somewhere new, he likes to track the sun to orient himself with east and west.
Dad doesn’t trust GPS, which he calls “our faceless friend,” and still uses a Rand McNally Road Atlas from 1992.
Unless he’s traveling to somewhere that he’s been before, then he drives by memory, which doesn’t always get the latest updates.
Last year, I carpooled with Dad on a three-hour trip to his parent’s old house (now lived in by my aunt) and decided to silently audit his turn-by-turn decisions to see how efficient they were.
Google disagreed with nearly every choice he made, sometimes adding twenty or more minutes to the estimated arrival time. We ended up arriving almost an hour late.
It didn’t really matter though because, throughout the drive, we didn’t talk about the roads.
We talked about the journey, and all the memories we made along the path throughout the years: the shoulder where Dad pulled over so I could throw up when I was five; the golf course where he caddied; how much my dearly departed aunt loved the beach we were passing and the times we visited with her; the shoulder where Dad pulled over so I could throw up when I was six, and so much more.
Eventually, I stopped tracking Dad on GPS, sat back, and enjoyed the ride over roads I’d traveled countless times without ever learning their names.
Next Week: Valentine’s Day Presents Worth Remembering
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