Gene Weingarten: As map use folds, we are now mice

WASHINGTON — Remember road maps? I'm talking about those big, floppy, colorful sheets of paper that couldn't be folded the same way twice. Their extinction was triggered by MapQuest, but it took Global Positioning Systems to administer the coup de grace.

A convenience store I frequent has just removed its entire map kiosk because, as the manager told me, "Its only customers were even older than you are or already dead."

People still plan trips and take them, but now we do it like mice in a maze: plenty of lefts and rights but no overview. We get where we want to, but — whether we're following turn-by-turn computer printout directions or the voice of a woman who seems like a necrophiliac's dream date, sexy but cold — we no longer have any idea where any place is in relation to anyplace else. We've lost the big picture.

I, for one, am actually elated by this. The playing field has been leveled.

Welcome to my world. I have always been a mouse in a maze. I'm directionally impaired, perpetually disoriented, intimidated by maps and unable to follow even simple directions. I never warmed to the concepts of "east," "south," "north" and that other one. Radio traffic reports are useless to me because I don't know where any of their reference points are. When, for example, you hear something like, "There is a tie-up north of St. Barnabas Road between the I-95 spur and the 270 interchange west of Father Hurley Boulevard," I hear something like "gliddy glub gloopy, nibby nabby noopy la la lo lo."

The only person I've known whose directional dysfunction comes close to my own is my friend Tammy. Tammy used to live in California. When she had to go north or south, she would first drive to the ocean — even if this was miles out of the way — because she had memorized one thing and one thing only: If the ocean was on her left, she was traveling north, and if it was on her right, she was traveling south.

I am more pathetic. Many years ago, after getting lost a half-dozen times, I finally learned the route from my house to the house of my friend Joel. I was really proud of myself, until disaster struck — I moved to a new house many miles away. At that point, if I did not have a wife or child with me, the only way I could now reliably get to Joel without getting lost was to first drive to my old house. I actually did this several times, to everyone's merriment.

Social scientists have looked into this matter and have concluded, basically, that I am a woman. It is true: Studies show that women typically exhibit greater anxiety over getting lost than men do and that they consistently score lower than men in tests of spatial orientation. But women seem no more apt to actually get lost, because they are more likely to ask and follow directions.

Me, too! Unlike the stereotypical male, I have no problem asking directions. I do it all the time. My problem — where I seem to differ from the average woman — is that when I'm seeking directions I unerringly find a species of pedestrian, a certain kind of man I call the Scoutmaster. The Scoutmaster can be reliably identified by his two principal traits:

1) He has no idea where anything is; and 2) he will never admit it.

I know him right away, from his actions. He will always listen patiently to where you want to go, nod laconically and glance knowingly out into the middle distance, as though planning the perfect route, sniffing the breeze for telltale clues, scanning the horizon for buzzards. This will last 10 seconds or more. Finally, he will give you a route, which he will pronounce "rowt." That is the final evidence that you have a Scoutmaster.

I always thank him profusely. Then I drive off in the direction opposite the one he told me to take. It tends to work.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online at noon June 29 at www.washingtonpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: As map use folds, we are now mice 06/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 5:49pm]

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