Saturday, October 13, 2007


"I am grown peaceful as old age tonight.
I regret little, I would change still less." -- Robert Browning, ''Andrea del Sarto''
It's important to know where you are. I have often remarked upon this fact, and many sage philosophers before me -- minor footnotes to my genius -- have done the same. Now, Socrates thought that the trippy shrike at Delphi was onto something when she said (remember: no Greek characters at Blogger), "gnothi seauton." Well, she probably didn't say it. Socrates probably didn't say it, either. They say that Socrates said it, and it was carved above her cave, They say. Despite all that, I maintain that "know yourself, man" is only one of the problems to be solved. The other is, "Where you at?"

Now, it's tempting to see the Delphic oracle's slogan as perhaps not an admonition or exhortation, but rather as an explanation. After all, here was some nice girl who went into a cave and breathed magic healing vapors that almost certainly made her hallucinate like a hippie, and I never have figured out how some shopkeeper's daughter would go from shy virgin to voice of Apollo. Did she elect herself? Was she elected by others? Was she unmarried by a certain age and therefore set aside in a face-saving move? Was she just the daughter of someone without sufficient dowry? I think it's at least plausible that she picked herself by being a first class cryptic goth girl. What do you do with your Plath-loving sad chicks? Well, the very best of the best, the one with the most uncanny insight and poetic expression might well go off to a cave to get to, like, really know herself. She would therefore have merely been the mother of unnumbered generations of sensitive souls taking drugs to get to know themselves. (One supposes that the self to be known is very hard to know indeed, if it takes becoming blotto to get near it.)

However, I will resist that temptation and instead hold forth on the philosophico-spiritual and temporal need of cartography. Have you not noticed that you are here? In fact, you are always here. Even when you're there, you're here.

No, I haven't been breathing magic Vap-o-Rub. I mean that all maps are constructed around you. They all have, in the center, "You Are Here." This is both an orientation marker and an assurance. Yes, you are here. Relax, man, because you're still here. No matter where you go, you can open any map and find that you are still here. The map inevitably offers a profound reassessment. So long as the map is in your hands, the world is known, the surroundings are known, and, most importantly, you are outside of the world. You are the eye in the sky. You are the stationary object in a world that flops about in eighteen impossible trifolds. You're ok. You're still here. All of that space is out there, down there, around there, but you're here, and you're safe.

There is a bit of a kerfuffle about whether or not the earth is the center of the universe. To me, that's a non-starter, and the problem with the church that hollered at Galileo is not that it was wrong, but that it was dogmatic about it. Had they been flexible in their thinking at all, they'd have known that the earth most assuredly is the center of the universe, because it's where the map makers are. If you go to London and you watch the TV news, you may well see a globe or a distorted Mercator's projection behind the readers. What you'll notice is that England is centered. Why wouldn't it be? The Southern Hemisphere is below chair level. Why not? If you watch a film and see the "Universal Pictures" (warning... stupid flash there) globe spin round, you'll notice that it stops with the sun shining on Hollywood. Of course. That's because You Are Here is the center of the map. Wouldn't be much of a map if "you are down there, below the edge of the paper" were displayed. So, if the universe is infinite and all, then it keeps going from its center in all directions, and therefore there really is no center. You'd have to know where the edges are to measure back to find the center, and if it's limitless (or a torus or a Taurus (and a paper on how the universe is a Ford motorcar is easier for me to understand than the one on polydimensional space)), or if it reflects, or if it hooks back on itself like a Klein bottle (my whiskey always comes in a Klein bottle), then any single place could be the "center" as easily as another, and, since we're the jerks making maps, why not here? In fact, why not right over my computer? It's as good a place as any other for center of the universe.

I didn't want to write about the universe, though. I wanted to write about directions. Above and left, I have a picture of The Big Chicken. The Big Chicken is far outside of Atlanta, GA in the independent freehold of Marietta, Georgia. (Dadgummed scarred me so much I was nearly Not Here when I saw that site.) Anyway, Mariettians and Atlantans having to pass the border into the Republic of Newt would need directions, and for decades such directions were given in terms not of where a person was, but in terms of the Big Chicken. Turn right at the Big Chicken to go to a particular car dealership (where the manager always needs his "crying towel" because of the deals the ignorant children give customers). It was an effective object d'art for that reason. In fact, the place was to be torn down every few years (and it didn't even start out as a chicken restaurant), but it got preserved due to its utility and tackiness.

Where I live now, there are some thousands of persons living in the city limits and some thousands more who travel in to shop. However, there are few landmarks to guide them.
"Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail." -- John Crowe Ransom, Blue Girls.

Instead, the people of the town have this eye-catching billboard.
It has been the subject of many glares and many more averted eyes. It remains there, warning us all that our colons are filled with polyps and that there are some gunslingers in town with the Old West mentality necessary for removing these villainous growths. We've been invaded by the Cavendish Gang, and they're out to kill our men folks. Fortunately, the folks at Mid-Atlantic Biopsy and Cow Punching are ready to go in there and clean it out for us.

You are HERE, the sign tells us. Fortunately, so are they.

Quick on the draw, the posse of gastroenterologists will gather in the saloon and chase down those varmints.

Me? I have no problem with the sign. I think it's important to know where you are. It's probably just as important to know where those guys are. Anyone creeps up behind me should have good intentions, and I know that they do: they have the best of intentions. My problem is only the sign's location. It's between a Wal*Mart and a Lowe's on a road with no nearby intersection. Therefore, it can't really be useful for telling travellers where they should turn. You can't say, "Well, go to the Big Chitlin and hang a left." I think they should move the sign in toward town some, or at least at the site of the local eternal road construction, because then we can use the sign as an object. We can make it a feature.

We can use it for directions and forget for a moment that it's a map.

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