Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I'm Lost

Sandra Parshall

When I tell people that I can get lost in my own neighborhood, they laugh because they think I’m joking.

I’m not.

I have what is quite possibly the world’s worst sense of direction. What dyslexics suffer through with words on a page is similar to what I endure when trying to find my way through the physical world. When I’m in my own house or yard, I know which way is which – early morning sun hits the front of the house, so that must be east; the back of the house receives late-day sun, so that must be west; our screened porch gets sun for most of the day, so that’s south; and the side where nothing but hostas will grow in the yard – I’m willing to bet that’s north.

When I leave my own property, though, all bets are off. I become disoriented and I’m likely to get lost if I deviate from certain often-traveled routes.

If you’re giving me directions, please don’t say, “Drive southwest for 1.2 miles, then turn east.” This is gibberish to me. Instead, paint a three-dimensional picture. Tell me what businesses, schools, churches I’ll pass on the way. Describe what’s on the corner where I’m supposed to turn. And please tell me whether to take a left or a right.

While my sense of direction is especially bad, I believe most women see the world as a collection of landmarks and topographical features. Have you ever called a doctor’s office or a business and asked directions from the woman who answered the phone? She undoubtedly gave you directions that made sense – “Turn right at the Olive Garden restaurant” or “Go past the building with the arch that looks like a toilet bowl and take the first left” or “Drive past Fresh Fields and turn right at the Wachovia Bank.” In the wilderness, a woman might memorize her route not by tracking it on a mental compass but by noting the big oak tree that’s been scarred by lightning and the jagged boulder with lichen in the shape of Abraham Lincoln’s profile.

Men and women simply don’t see the world the same way. That statement might be heresy to Gloria Steinem, but its accuracy has been confirmed by several scientifically structured experiments. While some individuals of both genders will think like the opposite sex, the majority of women use landmarks to find their way around, while the majority of men use maps, compass points, and calculated distances.

These differences are believed to be evolutionary. For most of humankind’s history, men have been the hunters and women the gatherers. Prehistoric males ranged far afield in search of edible prey, and they had to develop a reliable way to find their way back to their caves. They learned to pay attention to the sun’s position in the sky, and to create a mental map of the landscape. Women stayed close to home, and they learned where the berry patches and fruit trees were. (Even now, according to one study, women learn their way around a food market much faster than men do.)

The differences in the way men and women navigate shows up even when they’re working – or playing -- in virtual environments. Female architects, designers, trainee pilots, and computer gamers all function more efficiently when they use 3D graphics that resemble the real world and view them on wider screens that improve spatial orientation. Tests conducted by a team of Carnegie Mellon scientists and Microsoft researchers showed that when women used wide screens and realistic 3D images, their performance equaled the men’s.

All of this makes me feel marginally better about my pathetic navigational skills and less guilty about the money I spent on a GPS unit. I wonder, though, whether political correctness will ever allow us to honestly depict such gender differences in fiction and make use of them to propel a plot forward. Writing about a woman who can’t follow a map invites accusations of sexism from women, although the men in their lives may think it’s a realistic portrayal. A male character who meticulously states exact mileage and compass orientation when giving directions would make many women roll their eyes in exasperation.

As with so many other aspects of human existence, the facts may be firmly established for decades before people will willingly acknowledge them in everyday life. Fictional heroes and heroines, whom writers tend to present as idealized versions of their own genders, might never catch up with reality. My heroines possess all the navigational skills I lack. They know where they’re going and how to get there. And if some researcher says this isn’t realistic, I have a ready reply: Hey, it’s fiction!


pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband has the same challenges. It took him three months of meeting at halfway points for him to be able to get to my house when we were dating. I know when other people are in the car with us they think I am being pushy when I tell him how to get to places he's been a million times, but truly, he can't. And any kind of detour is deadly. So you are not alone. And he has a Ph.D and has written 25 books, so it's a peculiar thing.
His new project is "On the Road with American Writers." Can't wait to see how he navigates that.

Sandra Parshall said...

Your husband thinks like a woman! :-)

Being unable to find my way around really does make me feel stupid sometimes. I once spent half an hour trying to get my bearings after taking a wrong turn in my own neighborhood. The studies proving I'm not alone don't help much at times like that!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Aw, Sandy, I think you underestimate Ms. Steinem. I don't think feminists think men and women are the same, just that women's strengths have been undervalued in the past. (Examples: welding metal sculpture is an art, quilting a craft; men are chefs, women are cooks.) And I say we can give our characters, male and female, any flaws and superpowers we darn please. ;)

Joyce said...

I don't have any problems finding my way around, but I'm terrible with maps. I actually have to turn them in the direction I'm going to be able to make sense of them. Give me written directions and I'm fine.

Don't ever get lost in Pittsburgh, by the way. We have streets that exist only on maps, and some that are listed as streets but are really steps (someone wrote a book about all these steps a few years ago). If you ask for directions, you're likely to get this: "Yinz hafta make a right hand turn where that restaurant that used to be owned by that one Stiller (Steeler). They got some good kolbassy (kielbasa)n'at. Then go up the street aways til ya see Heinz filled (field)."

Carol said...

I'm the same way, Sandy, only worse. Much worse. Not only can I not tell the difference between North, South, East and West, I only can tell right from left because I know my right hand from my left. I can go somewhere a hundred times and not be able to find it the next go-round. My family's favorite story is when I thought I was walking into my cousin's house and walked into her neighbors. True, both houses are brick, but they're not in a housing tract and otherwise look nothing alike.

My friend Nan, an astrologer, says Uranus in my third house makes me creative, but also means that I have minor brain damage. According to my mother, I fell off the bed when I was a baby and landed on my head. Hmm. That explains a lot :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Joyce, I assure you I will do everything in my power to avoid getting lost in Pittsburgh. When I went there last spring for the mystery festival, I was in the company of two sister writers who were both equipped with GPS. Wise ladies -- it never hurts to double up on the navigational aids. If I ride with them again, I may take mine along too, for good measure.

Carol, my friend, no one is worse than me -- I refuse to relinquish my claim to the world's worst sense of direction! And what happened to you was not brain damage -- you were just born female, that's all.

What's really embarrassing is having someone ask me for directions. I wrote this blog a couple of hours after being stopped in a grocery store parking lot by a man, unfamiliar with the area, who wanted to know where the nearest copy shop was. Well, I know there is such a place in McLean -- I've driven past it. I think I even went in it once, several years ago. It's located not far from the grocery store parking lot the man and I were standing in. But could I tell this poor guy how to get to it? Of course not. I couldn't find it myself if my life depended on it. I ended up telling him to go across the street to the UPS Store, which has a copying machine and -- more important -- MALE employees who could probably give him precise directions to the copy shop if he had a large-scale copying job in mind. Then I slunk away, head bowed in shame. But at least I was able to tell him how to get across the street.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, Ms. Steinem used to get pretty upset when anybody suggested there might be inborn differences in the abilities of men and women. Perhaps she has mellowed. I wonder how good her sense of direction is.

Lonnie Cruse said...


I'm not asking, I'm BEGGING Santa for one of those little GPS systems for Christmas! I REALLY need one.

I can often picture point A, (where I'm standing and/or sitting) and point B (where I want to go next) but NOT the route between! Even in the towns where I've lived for years. I simply can not picture which road/street to take to get me there.

It does seem to be a problem mostly with women, and it drives most men nuts because they don't seem to have the problem. Sigh.

The new GPS systems are a welcome help!

Sandra Parshall said...

Lonnie-- Yes, it's that pesky route in between that foils us every time.

I had a rather alarming moment with my new GPS recently. We took it out to Front Royal with us on a day trip, just to see how it would do. (With my husband driving, of course we didn't NEED a GPS.) On the way back, we were driving along on the interstate when the GPS's female voice began insisting that we take a left turn at the next intersection. Well, there aren't any intersections on the interstate. After a couple of minutes, the GPS informed us that we would have to turn around and go back to get on course again. Scary -- even a female GPS can't read a map!

Norma said...

Sandy, I'm with you and your sense of direction. My biggie is returning home. When I come to an intersection, I figure if I turned right to get where I was, I have to turn right to get home - effectively sending me in the opposite direction.

My hubby is Mr. Directional Oriented. However, since he was born in the county we live in, (I'm a relative newcomer of only 52 years), he tends to give directions of route numbers or streets by the names he remembers from his childhood - even if that name no longer exists. Don't ask where that sends me because I have no idea.