Friday, April 8, 2016

Directionally impaired

A few months ago I interviewed Dr. Keith Vossel, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. The subject was the link between Alzheimer’s and seizures, but I also became acquainted through Vossel with the Morris water maze, developed by Richard Morris in the 1980s. Over time, Morris’s invention made it possible to use genetically modified mice that were showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, based on their ineptitude in finding food pellets in a maze that other mice could locate with ease. “A normal mouse pretty much knows where the pellet is,” Vossel said during a televised forum on music, art, and creativity. “The Alzheimer’s mouse is swimming around, not really knowing where it’s going.”
Absent-mindedness and a poor sense of direction have been lifelong companions of mine. In elementary school I was well-known for leaving my coat on the school’s playgrounds. And in adulthood, my directional skills have been consistently weak. On a trip to New York City with a couple of friends in the mid-1980s, I managed to lead us late at night directly into the heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant. Why did we know this could be a dicey place for us white guys? Because we learned so as teenagers from the Billy Joel song: I’ve been stranded in the combat zone/I walked through Bedford-Stuy alone. We reversed course immediately.
Almost three decades later, when my son started college at George Washington University, Paula and I began making the road trip to D.C. twice a year. Typically, we drove together, but in the last two years I made the drive on my own. In the spring of 2014, this almost led to a debacle.
I plugged Andryc’s dorm address into my GPS unit, and that’s when the problems began. Why was I being told to follow a southeast path, when Andryc’s dorm was in the city’s northwest quadrant? Soon I crossed over the Anacostia River, and then it was clear that my GPS had betrayed me. I drove around in a circle in Anacostia’s commercial district, and the voice in the machine kept telling me to make a U-turn. Fortunately, it was still daylight, a gorgeous spring evening. I stopped to ask for directions from an African-American family grilling meat in their front yard, and soon I was heading across a bridge toward the Capitol.
My troubles were just beginning. I could see the Capitol, and I knew I was moving toward it. But when I got closer to the massive edifice, it seemed that everything was blocked with bollards or one-way streets.
Was I moving in the correct direction? I wasn’t sure. Compounding my worries was that Andryc’s dorm was tricky to find—close to the Watergate hotel, but easier to get to by foot than by car. Eventually, I found a place to park, in the hope that I was within walking distance of his dorm. It was then that I realized my phone was almost out of juice. I called him, and was much relieved to learn that, yes, my car was within walking distance. Ten minutes later, there he was, my grown-up son, more in control of the situation than I was.
A year later, our hook-up went smoothly. But on the drive back home, I grasped that this would be my last drive of this length in such a short time—almost 1,000 miles in 36 hours. After stopping in Danbury, Connecticut, where we fortified ourselves at an excellent Brazilian buffet, dusk gave way to darkness. When I reentered Interstate 84, I’d lost my nerve. It was as if my rear-view mirror had been transformed into a video game, the kind with malevolent intent. Cars coming up behind us were especially unnerving. Was it just a matter of time that someone would collide with my Toyota Matrix from behind, splitting the car in half? Never have I been more relieved to reach the orderly calm of the Massachusetts Turnpike. I knew that I’d never again drive such a distance in such a short time.

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