Mom knew she was going in 1 direction: north

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The workers were busily tagging feral potholes.

They were using shovels to neuter some of the larger potholes.

I was pleased to see that the roadwork they were performing didn’t result in a detour. Detours are one of the chief causes of free-range wandering. Detours surprise us. We think we are in one place and then we discover that we are somewhere else. We head ourselves off at the pass.

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Detours cause my sense of direction to disappear. I become confused. The right to be confused is one of our inalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

OK, wherever you are as you read this, point north. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you. If someone else is near you, ask him or her to point north. Was it the same direction you were pointing? And you’re not even on a detour. The problem with directions is that they aren’t always where they are supposed to be.

Seeing the “Monty Python” TV skit about the 100-yard dash for people with no sense of direction always makes me laugh. At the start of this sketch, runners stand ready to sprint down the track. When the starter fires his pistol, each competitor runs in a different direction.

To my mother, every direction was north. It was impossible to disabuse Mom of that notion. She thought north was always in front of her. And behind her. And to her left. And to her right. My mother was born in Iowa. She confided to me that her ability to discern directions was fine until she crossed the Minnesota line. Entering the Gopher State messed Mom up. She had left her sense of direction in Iowa.

There was no north, east, south, west for Mom. No N-E-S-W. She never said, “Never Eat Soggy Wheaties.” She was direction-impaired. She had DDD (direction deficit disorder) that made her directions N-N-N-N.

Having only one direction was a definite liability when it came to giving directions. She had to dispense with north-east-south-west instructions and rely on sending travelers past where the old schoolhouse used to be and beyond where the Olson family once resided.

It made trips longer than they needed to be. If she missed her turn, she had to drive all the way around the world to access it.

Mom had no overeducated car with a GPS and a compass wouldn’t have helped. All a compass does is point north. That is fine as long as you want to go north. What she needed was a compass that would point to where she wanted to go. I did buy her a liquid-filled compass. I mounted it in her car. The compass stopped working immediately.

Having only one direction didn’t cause Mom much problem because, for the most part, she never went anywhere she hadn’t been before and she wasn’t surprised that the sun set in the north.

She left home with great eagerness and returned the same way. Mother was a passionate and witty practitioner of the meander. She knew that where she wanted to be was out there somewhere and found merriment in her inability to distinguish directions. She understood that sometimes lost is where she needed to be. She never resorted to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, but I do think that she occasionally followed any car that looked like it knew where it was going.

Mom wasn’t alone with her DDD. According to data from Compete, a Web analytics firm, more than 40 percent of Smartphone owners use the devices to get turn-by-turn directions. For iPhone users, the figure is even higher, over 80 percent. As a man whose motto is, “Don’t even ask about asking directions,” this is a gray area. Asking a phone for directions is still asking directions, isn’t it? Asking directions is fine for someone who wants his excitement in small portions.

It gets worse. Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, found that more than 26 percent of college students and 19 percent of college professors acknowledged that they occasionally, frequently, or always had difficulty when they had to quickly identify right from left. That’s not north from south — that’s right from left.

You know that you are directionally challenged when, while you are driving, your children never say, “Are we there yet?” Instead, they keep asking, “Are we lost yet?”

I have more directions than one, but I will admit that I am subject to occasional cluelessness as to my exact location or which way I should turn. I have an excuse. It’s heredity.

I feel sorry for people who are not directionally challenged. What excuse do they use when they become lost?

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.