Maps

When I was five, there was a gigantic map of Santa Clara County that hung on my bedroom wall. I can’t recall the precise circumstances in which it was placed there – whether I begged or did any number of puerile things to ensure its placement, I cannot say. What I can tell you is that I had a keen interest in the magical clover-leaf intersections, downtown San Jose’s rectilinear makeup (I particularly enjoyed the way West Santa Clara Street turned into the Alameda[1]), and the patterns which shuttled traffic[2] along such an expansive area.

I learned that my parents belonged to AAA (something called auto insurance) and that AAA offered a service to its members: you could order as many free maps as you like and AAA would send these to you by mail. Using this careful subterfuge, I actually telephoned AAA and told the helpful customer representative that my mother was sick and needed maps for an upcoming trip. It was a fib, not one I was fond of making. But to not know the world beyond Santa Clara County was an impossibility.[3] I gave the representative my mother’s AAA card number and, to my amazement, the representative listened. Sure enough, there was a package in the mail a mere four days later.

map.gifThere were maps of Santa Cruz, of Monterey, of Bakersfield, of Modesto – damn near every map that was available was sent to me. The maps, in their own way, were as comforting as chicken soup.[4] Comforting in the sense that they contained bright colors and semiotics which delighted my mind’s eye. It had never occurred to any of the adults that there was something joyfully monastic about all this. It did give me comfort against the violence and upheaval that I heard beyond my bedroom door. But the knowledge of the streets that I carried inside my head got many of the adults out of lost situations in a pinch. I knew the lay of the land, but not the land itself.

The semiotics in particular allowed a portal into another world, which was, at the risk of invoking Derrida or Baudelaire, the world in some sense. For there wasn’t any particular way that this bird’s eye view could be parsed so precisely from a helicopter or a jet. The lines were clean, allowing one to view how people traveled without the clutter of houses. The intersections offered neat notation along the lines of -] [- [5] for the roads, which reflected an aesthetic minimalism that I found more pleasurable than the actual intersections themselves.

So it was no surprise that I experienced a great giddy delight upon discovering the postmodernists and their descendants.[6] They too were concerned with structure and order and creating elaborate systems that reflected the world, but that didn’t approximate it. While the systems themselves may not have been perfect or the ultimate answer, they did nevertheless contain a comfortable place to settle, a world to retreat into when I needed to escape the real world or, more accurately, find a way to recontextualize the real world through another system. It is impossible to state the emotional reaction I have had to such systems, but it was considerable.

Oddly enough, while Google Maps and their ilk are handy, they still cannot equal the joy of an unfolded map. A map sets down the record of the streets at the time that it is published. Thus, it is not the final arbiter of what’s in the real world and there are still great things to discover about it. Google Maps too has this tendency to add little markers of what’s out there. And that’s no fun. I prefer wandering along a street I haven’t known and discovering unexpected things along the way.

Is it healthy for a person to cling to an exact though somewhat abstract view of the world like a port in the storm?[7] My enemies would quibble with this, but I know that it’s healthy for me. My mind works best when hindered by a strange structural occlusion and this often prevents my thoughts and feelings from being understood. Perhaps this is why now, inspired by Danielewski, I cling to this odd format. There is a map here, but you may not understand the territory it charts.

[1] There was a bus route that traversed the entire stretch.

[2] It is important to note that the traffic scuttled in my head.

[3] Even though I learned to read at a very early age, it didn’t occur to me that one could learn about The World Outside.

[4] Dim memories of homemade chicken soup dapple through my parietal lobe, but is such a metaphor necessary? We’ve clearly established Edward Champion’s idiotic nature and many have suggested, quite rightly, that he has no right to poke his nose into certain matters. He is at best a quixotic buffoon. Can one truly imagine how he functions, thinks, and formulates? Or is such a consideration

[5] Not unlike the form I have chosen for these footnotes.

[6] See most recently, the Statement.

[7] Please note that I am not asking for sympathy here. I am merely setting this all down for the record.

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One Comment

  1. As a native of the valley (born in Mountain View and raised in Sunnyvale) I was fond of the AAA maps as well.

    By the way, have you seen Slate’s deconstruction of Chuck Klosterman’s author photos today? It’s wonderfully brutal:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2148573/

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