The Life of the Lost
Navigating life with a broken internal compass
Illustration by Chad Crowe
Unlike me, my mom has always been judicious in her use of profanity. She only cursed once a year – you could almost set your watch by it – while we were in the Buick on a family vacation. As dad nervously negotiated Dallas traffic to find the Ramada Inn, he’d prompt her to give him directions from the map she was holding (upside down). It was like poking a rattlesnake.
“I can’t read the damn map!” she’d snap, right on schedule.
Directions, or a lack thereof, were her Achilles heel. Map or no map, asking my mom for directions was pure folly on my dad’s part. She had the homing instincts of a merry-go-round and he knew it.
My mom’s annual map-reading meltdown should have tipped me off that the females in my family are short-changed on internal GPS. She and I once set out for Tyler, Texas, from Dallas – I drove, while my mom “navigated” what should have been a 100-mile trip. Three hours later, on our approach to Texarkana (nowhere near Tyler), it occurred to me that she and I share what can only be called the LAC gene: Lost And Confused.
This is a dominant family trait – I inherited it from my mom and recklessly passed it to my daughter. For us, north, south, east and west are superfluous to any conversation related to wayfinding. Why not just chat about algebraic theory while you’re at it? If you asked any of us which direction we’re facing, we’d say in unison, “Forward.”
My interpretation of direction is that north is always up. South is always down. East is to my right. West is to my left. Intellectually, I’m aware that this kind of spatial orientation is both comical and dangerous – precisely the kind of logic that could lead to a deserted gravel road on the sketchy side of town where I’ll be robbed of the fillings in my teeth – but knowing that doesn’t seem to help.
Nothing inside me sets off an alarm that warns, “Heyyyyy … this doesn’t feel right,” as I drive or walk, sometimes for hours, in the wrong direction. Cab drivers could make a fortune on me if they knew how far out of their way they could really drive before I questioned their choice of routes.
Something very Total Recall-ish also happens in every elevator: My mind is wiped clean of any internal compass once I’m inside. When the doors re-open, I have no idea where I am in relation to my surroundings. I exit toward the wrong direction every time, only to hear Mr. Roth say, “Other way, love.”
The missing compass is inconvenient at every (wrong) turn. Excursions on foot turn into blister-filled double marathons. It’s nearly impossible to be anywhere on time without a half hour cushion for my “circling the block” ritual. Detours are the geographical equivalent of working a Rubik’s Cube behind the wheel. Nighttime navigation? A fool’s errand. When I listen to someone giving me directions, I think, “Charlie Brown’s teacher got a new retainer.”
My Lost And Confused gene is a good predictor that I’ll be that elderly resident who sets off the alarm at the back of the retirement home before wandering aimlessly through an open field in search of the 2 p.m. bingo game. Hopefully Mr. Roth will find me to say, “Other way, love.”