in Daily Life, Portland

State of Confusion

My wife is a wonderful woman. She’s intelligent, funny, and competent. She’s probably the most able person I know. However, she is not without flaws.

For one, she has an abysmal sense of direction. She rarely knows where she is, how she got there, or how to get anywhere else. She has no real internal map. If you asked her which way she was facing this very moment, she probably could not tell you.

In contrast, I pride myself on a near absolute sense of direction. I used to say that after I’d been to a place once, I could always get there again. As I’ve grown older, this ability has waned somewhat. Still, except for on our property (where, for some reason, I’m always turned around 180-degrees), I generally know which way I’m facing, and I always know where I am and how I got there.

Naturally, this disparity in directional abilities occasionally causes conflict. For example, on Monday was headed to Sheila’s for a stitch-and-bitch. “Can you give me directions?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “but haven’t you been there before.”

“Yes,” said Kris. “I don’t remember how to get there, though.”

So, I wrote out directions:

Head north on McLoughlin, take the Tacoma exit, go left at the light, go left at the stop at the top of the hill, go straight through the stops. When you reach the light at Johnson Creek, go straight, but then almost immediately take a left up the hill. Take a left on Ogden. Sheila’s house is on the left-hand side.

“These directions suck,” Kris told me. I drew her a map instead. “This isn’t any good, either.”

We were frustrated with each other. “I don’t know what else I can do,” I said. “Try Mapquest.”

“Mapquest is wrong. It tells me to get off at Bybee, but I can’t. There’s no exit there.”

I sighed. “Well, then, you’ll just have to do with the directions I gave you.” Neither of us was pleased with this solution, but she did eventually get to knitting and back without incident.

We met Craig and Lisa for a fine dinner at Ciao Vito the other night. After dinner, I was not in the mood to drive home down McLoughlin/99E. Instead, I took 32nd down to Burnside, then cut over to 39th. I pointed out landmarks from my life along the way.

“These are the apartments where Myung lived. He was my sales manager when I was with Combined Insurance. Amy Ratzlaf lived just a block over there. Remember that upstairs apartment where Chris and Cari lived just after college? It’s just beyond that record store. Here’s Stark. What do yo know that’s near Stark and 39th? Portland Nursery, remember? The place we bought our fruit trees and berry plants.”

Eventually Kris became somewhat engaged. “If this is 39th,” she asked, “does that mean that if we followed it long enough, it would run down near Andrew and Courtney’s house?”

“Exactly! See, here’s Hawthorne. There’s lots of stuff along Hawthorne: a Powell’s, the Bagdad Theater, all sorts of stuff. See this Safeway? Nick lives someplace around here. Here’s Holgate. As soon as we cross Holgate, I feel like we’re in the extended range of the area we usually hang out. See? Here’s the Trader Joe’s. Here’s Steele. Who do you know that lives on Steele?”

Kris thought for a moment. “Celeste?”

“That’s right.” If this sounds condescending in the re-telling, that’s because it almost sounded condescending during the event, too. I don’t mean to be condescending, of course, but I find myself trying to simplify things, trying to explain things like I might explain them to a child. Kris is not a child.

“Celeste lives just down there, across from Reed. Here’s Woodstock. We need to cut over to 99E now because 39th dead ends.”

“It does? I thought I took 39th home from Sheila’s the other night. Oh wait — I crossed 39th to Bybee.”

“Right. Bybee’s okay, but it kind of twists through that ritzy neighborhood and the intersections are all funky. I tend to avoid it when possible. Woodstock is easy. Now here’s the Bybee bridge. What would happen if I were to go straight instead of turning onto McLoughlin?”

“I don’t know. Would you hit 17th?”

“Yes! Where would you hit 17th?”

“I don’t know. Near the Verizon ad?” (There’s an annoying big electronic billboard at the Verizon store where 17th meets 99.)

“That’s a good guess, but it’s off a little bit. You’ll see. You should recognize where you are.”

“I don’t recognize it,” Kris said when we reached 17th.

“I forgot that it splits in two,” I said, pulling up to the next intersection.

“Wha—? How did we get here? It’s like we’re in a completely different state!” Ah, the flash of recognition. She knows the area around Bybee & Milwaukie: Caprial’s, Cha Cha Cha, Fat Albert’s Breakfast Cafe, Springwater Grill, Stars Antique Mall, Wallace Books, etc. She also knows a little of the area up by the Cronks and Bennetts near Woodstock. We’ve even driven this connecting route before, but apparently the points have never been connected on Kris’ internal map.

“Why don’t I take this way to Andrew and Courtney’s?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier?”

I laughed. “Maybe. It’s not the quickest route, but it might be the best one for you to take.” We passed Eckankar! The Church of the Light and Sound of God! (Changed, apparently, to the Religion of the Light and Sound of God.) “Here, let me show you how this all connects up to the Tacoma Street overpass.” I turned onto Tacoma. “Remember: the Sellwood Bridge is on this road, too, directly behind me. That’s how you get to Marla’s.”

“Don’t push your luck,” muttered Kris.

Write a Comment


  1. I have absolutely no sense of direction. None. Does “north” mean turn right or left? See?

    I thought I was the only one that noticed that eye-blinding Verizon ad on 99-E. Gak.


  2. Heh, I have a fantastic sense of direction. I can orient myself anywhere, have no trouble reading maps, and rarely, rarely get lost. (In fact, the only times I’ve gotten lost recently was when I followed Google map directions. They have proved amazingly inaccurate each time I used them.)

    However, I can not give accurate directions. I try, (lord I try!) but I always screw up and say “go left” when I mean right, or “turn east” when I mean west.

  3. I’m too lazy to look up the study, but you’ve discovered something that’s pretty well-known: women navigate by landmark more than men do.

    ^So yeah, your directions suck.^

  4. We went to Chinese food for lunch today. Kris wouldn’t share her fortune, but only mumbled something about it not being important. Cleverly, I obtained the slip of paper and am now sharing it with the world: “Think of the direction you want to go and point your nose that way.” Ah, yes. Even the fotune cookie makers have her figured out. (By the way, her lucky numbers on the back of the fortune were: 5 18 23 36 42 11.)

  5. Having a sense of direction and being able to read a map do not necessarily go hand and hand. Both Liz & Adam, my adult children, are poor in sense of direction. Therefore, I insisted that they learn how to read a map. The Thomas guide is indispensible! Adam has developed his own method, a form of map orientation, that substitutes for a sense of direction and Liz has gotten so good with the map reading that she can give directions over the phone to her friends who don’t bother to find out where they are going before they leave. When Liz leaves without looking at the map, she sometimes gets lost, but she can always pull over to the side of the road, get out her Thomas Guide and find her way. On the map, north is always up.