Portland Update August 2016
It’s late August in Portland, the weather is in the mid-nineties. Trump is trailing in the polls. Many of us are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking about third party candidates, looking up and out the window and realizing that the sun is setting earlier again and the summer is nearly over. I am a little disappointed because the weather has been generally bad this summer.
Looking back over the last three months, I have only been down to my secret spot on the Sandy River a few times because of the lousy weather and now because I am too busy with other things; I am getting ready to move out of Gresham and into Portland, I’m taking singing lessons and I am working on odds and ends with my next book, and of course, real estate.
Since getting my real estate license, I’ve been driving through Portland a lot. I feel like I am always in my car. One thing that’s made this much easier is the Gmaps app on my phone. The app tells me where to turn, keeps me updated on my progress, and tells me how long it will take me to arrive at my destination. I have gotten so used to using it that I even turn it on when I'm driving to a place I’ve been to a million times.
I have been thinking a lot lately about visual and verbal systems. Written and spoken language is a system that on one hand is arbitrary, but on the other, carries meaning and is essential for communication. Musical notation is a visual system that represents perceived, actual sound. Maps are a visual representation of actual space and place. I've been thinking about how knowledge of one does not replace the other, and how difficulty with one can hamper a deeper understanding of the big picture. It’s kind of like the difference between knowing the Latin name of a plant and its taxonomy versus knowing its common name, what it smells and tastes like and its general, actual character in the forest. Each are important, but knowing one does not outweigh or subsume the other.
But there’s also this: I have a horrible sense of direction. Some of my earliest memories involve getting lost in grocery stores and museums, in a panic, breaking down into sobs when I finally found my aunt, mother, caretaker.
As I grew up and got my driving license, much of my driving was in and around Corbett, a small town with roads named after white pioneer families. There was no grid system, no point in learning the cardinal directions. If you got lost, you just turned around and retraced your steps, or else kept driving and hoped that the road intersected with the Columbia River Highway and you could eventually figure out where you were. Directions were given in relation to where your friends’ families lived or in a sequence that you merely memorized. I had no visual construct, no mental map of Corbett. For the most part, I didn't need one.
I still don’t know, if forced, I could draw a map of my hometown.
When I was very sick and going to the doctor’s constantly for my Cushing’s disease, my doctor would often tear off a piece of paper and draw me a map of a body system or a surgical procedure they were going to perform on me. The maps helped me see what was invisible to me: the inside of my body. I tore out maps of the brain from medical textbooks and visible representations of the endocrine system, metaphors of the body. Picturing these abstract concepts gave me a working knowledge of how my body operated. These mental constructs didn’t make me an expert but they were good enough for my purposes; they helped me feel at home in my body in a scary time.
The same can’t be said for actual maps. Actual maps are meant for travel, movement. They are dynamic as our view of the world is dynamic. Actual maps change when you turn in another direction. Reading actual maps requires a special kind of brainpower. Our reality depends on our vantage point
The real trouble with my poor sense of direction started when I began branching out, leaving Corbett. I needed better directions. I would ask my dad how to get say, to the Hawthorne district in Portland and he would tell me: get on I-84 east, then get off at the 43rd Ave exit, take a left on Glisan, another left on 39th Ave, etc. And I would look confused and my father would sigh and sit down. He would patiently draw a map with a blue ballpoint pen on the back of an envelope or some other scrap of paper. He would explain each turn and then highlight my route on the map with an arrow. My father’s maps were never to scale, but they were accurate to the way my brain operated; I needed both a list and a visual map for me to feel comfortable. The list kept me oriented, the map represented a stripped down version of reality.
A few days ago I was driving to the freeway and I remembered those maps….all those maps my father had drawn for me on scratch paper. For someone who saves everything, I was sad and surprised when I realized I didn’t have a single one in my posession. I never thought to save them, never knew they would become cultural relics; most likely I will never need one again unless my cell phone breaks. I have Gmaps. No one uses paper maps anymore. No one stops and asks for directions.
The things is…. I have a poor working memory. I have excellent memory, short term and long-term….but I have poor working memory. Working memory is the RAM of your brain essentially. When I stop and ask for directions, I immediately forget them. I have to write them down or they are out of my brain immediately.
This brings me to my second point, the reason I was thinking about those hand-drawn maps in the first place, the reason I have to use my Gmaps app so religiously; I have a learning disorder.
I have been diagnosed with so many things. (Cushing’s Disease, Osteoporosis, Addison’s Disease, fibromyalgia, IBS, PTSD, etc. etc.) So I’m not exactly eager to throw another malady onto my already sizable heap. However for the sake of my own self-knowledge, I’ve come to accept that I have a learning disorder called dyscalculia. It’s similar to dyslexia, but instead of muddling my reading, dyscalculia keeps me from being able to do math very well, if at all. Dyscalculia is also responsible for my poor sense of direction, my inability to read maps, read musical notation, conceive of measurements in my head, and my poor sense of time. I have done enough research to know that dyscalculia manifests itself in different ways for different people. For example as compared to other people with this disorder, my math skills are bad, but not terrible. I can’t really do math in my head, but I understand the concepts of multiplication and division and can competently either pencil it out or use a calculator (some people with dyscalculia can only add in ones and can’t tell between two numbers which one is bigger.) Nonetheless I have consistently tested below the fiftieth percentile my whole life.
In discovering that I have this disorder, I also finally understand why I have avoided using cookbooks and have learned to cook by trial and error. I have avoided sewing and sculpture and carpentry or anything where I have to measure out ingredients or distances. I avoid board games where too much math is involved. (I’m a pro at charades and Pictionary and simple strategy games.) Any task involving math is frustrating and tedious for me. I envy those who can do sums in their head or easily estimate population, size of an object or remember how many miles, or how long or how much money something is.
But by far the most severe symptom for me is my poor sense of direction. It really is awful. And as a realtor it’s kind of embarrassing, because, to the untrained eye, it looks like I literally don’t know where I am. Also, as someone who has lived in Portland her entire life, I get around the city like someone who moved here a couple months ago. I know where I am Goddamnit! I want to say. I know where I am going, I just don’t know how to get there…
I am so often lost completely – while still knowing where I am. I am home, but lost in my home. How can this be? It has made me wonder what “home” means. Does it mean having the mental map of a taxi driver? Or does it mean having a story attached to many places…having myths and meaning, having a history, no matter how free-floating, how disorganized?
The dyscalculia has to do with my working memory, with not being able to hold too many concepts in my brain at the same time. This makes it difficult to concentrate on walking and which way is north and when do I turn? It was so bad when I was younger that I was deathly afraid of making a wrong turn, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to the original route.
I want to protest: I know where I am. It’s just hard to know where I am in relation to any another place.
I have now realized that this is different than the way others think; I will explain.
Dyscalculia feels like this: I go to pick up something at a friend’s house in Portland. I have never been to her house before. I plug in the address to Gmaps and as I drive up I realize that an ex-boyfriend used to live in the house next door. I remember the interior of the house, the colors on his bedroom wall, the way he smelled, but I didn’t remember his address or that this was where he lived until I am right in front of it. I have a pleasant trip down memory lane in my head and then I walk up to my friend’s house. I know she’s not home, but she has left the boxes I want on the front porch.
The door is open. It’s hot out. I can see the fan whirling in the entryway. All down the steps are rotting pears. It smells like vinegar.
I knock on the open doorframe. A shirtless man emerges from a bedroom. “Hi,” I say. “Grace Anne told me I could come and pick up some empty cardboard boxes.”
“You look familiar,” I say.
“You do too,” he says.
“Where do you work?”
“Okay, I knew it!” I say. “I’m Martha. I worked at Seven Corners for six years.” We shake hands.
“I’m Cody. I knew I recognized you even with your sunglasses on!” says Cody. Except I have already forgotten his name. I take off my glasses and smile at him. And then he asks me what department I worked in and I ask about people I know that may still work for the company. And then when I leave I say, “What is your name again?’
“Cody,” he says.
And I repeat Cody, Cody, Cody in my head as I walk down the steps with my empty boxes. I get in my car and punch in the address to my next destination.
Dyscalculia….Also…it feels like getting off a freeway and heading directly towards the apartment building where my aunt Raydell used to live, looking up and seeing where she cut the screen out of her window and jumped to her death one winter night several years ago. But I hadn’t remembered that her apartment building was off this particular freeway exit until I see it.
Dyscalculia feels immensely intimate and wildly disorienting.
It’s embarrassing asking people again and again for their address. I feel silly. I feel dependent, like I always just expect someone else to be the navigator. It feels tedious when people talk about which way is the best way to drive to a certain destination, or if someone lived on this street or that street. I think it’s the most boring thing ever to wonder what street so and so lived on, mostly because I have no correlating mental image of most streets, or I have long since forgotten what streets I myself lived on.
A few days ago I drove to the St. John’s neighborhood to meet a friend. I parked my car and thought to myself: now Martha, remember where you parked. And I did, I thought: there’s a dental clinic, I parked by the dental clinic. But the problem was, I walked to the gallery to meet her, and then I walked around the corner to get a bagel, and then we walked to a bar, and by the time I left to go to my car, I was so turned around….it took me almost forty minutes to find my car.
I pulled up Gmaps and looked at the map, but it looked like gibberish to me. So I just wandered around. In my wanderings I ran into a poem someone had pasted up in a storefront window. It was written by a woman who’d lived in St. John’s her entire life, back to the Word War Two era. “I am from St. John’s.” the poem began.
I stopped and took a picture. I chuckled to myself. I wouldn’t have found this poem about a sense of place had I not really known where I was.