The Whole Picture

This morning while I was driving along Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, MN (hometown of Senator Al Franken, Thomas Friedman, and the Coen Brothers) I made a sad, but not surprising, discovery:  The building that housed one of my favorite stores, Latitudes, was standing empty and for rent.  Latitudes sold globes and maps from all over the world. Of course I’m regretting now that I didn’t stop in more frequently and make more purchases. I knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before Latitudes would be done in by GPS systems and Google Maps and the like. People are too hurried and harried now for all that unfolding and refolding. All they want is the quickest route from here to there. They don’t want to be distracted by landmarks along the way or encumbered by trivia about where they ARE, where they exist in the larger scope of things.

[LATE-BREAKING NEWS:  Latitudes has not gone out of business, but it has moved to a smaller location and beefed up its online sales. Since I had already composed this blog entry, I'm going to post it anyway. I think the trend still holds.]

I am a map-loving, atavistic oddball.  I have collected and perused maps since before I ever went anywhere, before I even crossed the Iowa border nine miles south of my childhood house. I keep my maps in the big bottom drawer in the kitchen cupboard, except for the ones I consult frequently. Those lie on a bookcase in the dining room, within reach of the table where I spread them out. I’m not content with the close-up view of point A or the route to point B.  I need context, always, in every aspect of my life.

Recently my daughter moved to a new apartment in San Francisco. I found the address easily on Google Maps, clicked on the satellite view, and saw nearby rooftops labeled with the names of the businesses they house. So, I had some sense of her new neighborhood, but I wanted to see it in relation to the rest of the city.  I had an errand in a nearby strip mall with a Barnes and Noble store, so I went in and grabbed a sturdy, plastic San Francisco map.  When I unfolded it at home, I realized it was a tourist map, with sectional close-ups of the places tourists would likely want to visit. My daughter’s street wasn’t on it, not anywhere. Latitudes carried “real” maps, full maps, and I got one and spread it out on the table. There I could see my daughter’s street in its context, in relation to downtown, her work, her transportation to work, the ocean, the airport, Golden Gate Park, the route she runs every morning. I could imagine a whole life, lived day-by-day in a real place, a whole city, the whole Bay Area, so much more encompassing and satisfying than a quick trip from here to there, or “there” alone.

Google Maps is handy and has its charms.  One day, while trying to find out how many houses Mitt Romney owns (4–in the U.S., anyway), I landed on a website that promises aerial and street views of celebrity homes.  I found Bob Dylan’s house in Malibu and zoomed in close.  It’s a far cry from the Zimmerman family’s stucco foursquare in Hibbing, MN, which my friends and I scouted out on a post-Labor Day trip along the Iron Range.  If you type “Iron Range” in Google Map’s search box, it suggests “Iron Range, Hibbing, MN,” which offers you a close-up of what appears to be the Hull-Rust Mine, the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, though there’s no explanatory label or caption.  Minnesota’s Official State Highway Map shows you the whole Mesabi Range stretching from Coleraine to Aurora, the Vermilion Range between Tower and Babbitt, the Cuyuna Range north of Aitkin. It even shows you the tiny towns like Makinen and Palo, where Finnish miners blacklisted for union organizing ended up farming in the cutover white pine forest. Google Maps brings up Makinen, a lone junction, isolated out in the woods, entirely out of context.

As for those celebrity houses, I admit to looking at several more.  But zooming in on Malibu or Belmont, MA mansions doesn’t show me their relation to South Central Los Angeles or South Boston.  I can’t see how wealth is concentrated or what maintains it, nor does my field of vision include the places where people do with far less. I have to seek those out, separately, although in my mind they fit together.

Speaking of context, I must comment on my pleasant Sunday afternoon at Common Good Bookstore in St. Paul, MN (check the corner of Snelling and Grand), an independent bookstore that stays in business because it is not its owner’s (Garrison Keillor’s) primary source of income. I had been invited to introduce a debuting writer, Josh Garrett-Davis, and his new memoir, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.  This book is the sort of memoir I strive to write and long to read. Josh could have written an ordinary memoir, one that focused on his puny (a relative term, not a judgment call) childhood in South Dakota, as the only child of divorced parents.  But Josh is a context guy.  Instead, he locates himself firmly in Pierre (East River) and Hot Springs (West River), South Dakota, in the 1980s and 90s, then reaches back in both family and public history and across the Great Plains, from east to west and north to south, to create for himself a “personal mythology” that explains who he is, where he has come from, and how that expansive context has shaped his worldview. It’s a rich, intelligent book that makes fascinating associations between one feature of the Great Plains and another. And it opens, even before the title page, with a map.

3 comments to The Whole Picture

  • gunnar berg

    I remember slide rules, fountain pens, mailed letters and land line telephones. Maps will become obsolete (if they already are not). And the compasses that go with them. And books – yes, books, except maybe the little poetry books and I suppose there will always be book collectors.

    Another one that struck me the other day – the Dewey Decimal System is completely obsolete, or should be. Bar codes and bar code scanners allow books to be stuck anywhere in the stacks – frequently used near the front, seldom read at the back. The scanner is connected to a computer that knows where the book is. Nobody, except old people, wander through the stacks anymore. All this is probably being done anyway, but it just dawned on me, being an older gentleman, a couple of weeks ago.

  • Cheri

    I still have a slide rule in my desk drawer. I don’t know why I keep it, because I never did catch on to its use. If I’m ever supplying a bunch of objects for students to use as writing prompts, I take the slide rule along. People who know what it is tend to write funny recollections of math class and their prowess or lack thereof. Those who have never seen one before give it some fanciful identity and use.
    I also need context in telling time. A digital clock is worthless in a classroom. It gives you only the moment; you can’t tell how much time has passed or how much remains. What good is knowing the moment–and then having it change suddenly? My daughters think my habit of announcing the time as “quarter to” is archaic, but it says what matters to me: I’ve got fifteen minutes left–a quarter hour–before the next hour strikes. I wonder if the Swedes, who are surely beset by digitization, still say “fem i halv nio” or “five minutes to half of nine” for the time my daughters insist is 8:25.

  • gunnar berg

    When I first was working I was more in the numbers end of design rather than the creative end. There was a hierarchy of slide rules; the higher paid oldtimers had slide rules made of exotic woods with ivory, pearl and brass inlays. Mine is functional(or was), made of milled alunimun with etched and filled numbers. Good for prying open paint-can lids.

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