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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: March 28, 2019

Thanks for Being Helpful

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

I could write a lengthy list of things I am not good at. The one that has possibly caused me the most challenges is my defective "math gene." Math was a struggle for me from grade school through college. I had many kind teachers and relatives who attempted to help me improve but it has never gotten better. I use the calculator function on my phone, or consult my husband if he is around, which is easier. An engineer was an inspired husband choice for me.

But there is another deficiency I have, which I believe is sourced out of the same area of my brain as the deficient "math" center, and that is reading maps or following directions for driving. I have no sense of direction. Even after living in my parent's home for 20 years, I struggled to figure out which bedroom windows face north. I would get tense any time I had to drive alone to a new location, and at one point, sent on an errand for an early employer to Coleman, Wis., I got "lost" and couldn't find my destination in the village. After bumbling around for a considerable period of time, I accidentally found the business I was looking for. My employer was astounded when I told him this story. "All you had to do was keep the "water tower" (or some other perfectly obvious landmark) in front of you!" So easy for him, so perplexing to me.

When I had to fly for my job years later I would be studying a city map for days in advance. Mike would make me little photocopies and a "cheat sheet" of turns, sort of a crude paper GPS, so I could find my way through, for example, Philadelphia at night in a rental car to my hotel. Once I reached the hotel I'd start memorizing another set of directions to get to my meeting location the next day. I was envious of those who found their way around new places effortlessly, amazing me as much as the tiny warblers migrating from Midwest pine barrens to the Bahamas for the winter.

As you can imagine, the acquisition of a cell phone with mapping ability transformed my life about 15 years ago. I suddenly had the freedom to travel all over with total confidence; and I've taken full advantage of this miracle of technology. I can listen to the turn by turn instructions, only needing an occasional peep at the screen to confirm a tricky turn.

But there are times and specific locations that GPS does not work well. I recently had a long conversation with a helpful man about such a location that made me remember that stressful feeling I used to get so often as someone tried to assist me by giving driving directions that would help any normal person.

I needed to visit a business in Wausau, a city of 40,000. I live about 25 miles away and still use my GPS to navigate in the city, although I usually go there twice a week now, and have been visiting it ever since I met Mike. I still couldn't tell you what's on the north or west side of town, nor could I tell you what exact direction I travel to go there from home. The only places I can go in Wausau without the GPS are Menard's and the place I take yoga.

The helpful man at the new business gave me the address, but then said that GPS directions would not deliver me to their location. Instead, he said he'd give me verbal directions which would be easier. At the time of this conversation, I was outside in the rain, since he returned the call while I was heading in from the barn. I had nothing to write with and couldn't just dash in the house since my boots were full of horse manure. I said, "Well, I am not good with verbal directions, so I will get close and then stop and ask." I could tell he was astonished " because who in the world stops to ask for directions these days; - and he also felt challenged. He was a very helpful person, and I sensed he was confident he could easily help me find the business location. Little did he know who he was dealing with.

"Well, you know where highway 29 merges, in sort of a "t" with highway 52? There's a sign there to go to Merrill?" Apparently this is something anyone in the world would know, but I don't. I said, well, no not really, but I would probably be able to get that far on the GPS. Encouraged, he plunged ahead. "Well, you don't turn at the first merge but you turn at the second one, the sign will say you are going to Medford" or something. I didn't hear any more because I already knew the conversation was doomed. Unless he said it is next to Menard's or my yoga studio it was over for me. I was having a flashback to hundreds of similar conversations I had when I was young; few of them resulting in errorless travel to a location.

"I'm sort of new to the area," I said, "And I'm not sure I know where that is, but I will just get close as I can, and if I need to I'll call you for more instructions."

He was now on a mission. He really didn't want me lost, or having to call again. "Where you calling from?" he asked. I told him Edgar, which is our mailing address, but in reality we are quite a distance from the village. "Oh, okay, I can give you turn by turn from Edgar - You'd take the highway east" "Oops," I say. " I don't have anything to write with now, I'm outside."

"Oh, okay, just call me back when you have a pen and I'll give you turn by turn!" he said. What a patient fellow. Actually, this is just the kind of guy you want for the work I needed to have done. He's thorough, very customer service oriented, helpful. Clearly a good business person and a nice guy to boot. "OK," I said, I'll look at the map when I get inside and if I need help I'll call back."

I am sure he's lived in the Wausau area a long time, maybe all his life. There's not that much to it, and he knows the city like his own backyard. He may not identify with the experience of someone new to the area, much less someone as hopeless as me, who can get lost in Coleman, population 696.

As a child, I used to marvel at Chicago during trips there to visit relatives. I remember my Uncle Bill, who knew that vast city and surrounding areas like the back of his hand, give incredibly detailed instructions from memory. "Well, you get on the Dan Ryan, and go six miles" Such narratives could last 5 minutes for a single destination. I would be in wonder at such a person, who could find their way around such a massive and complicated city as seen by a little Peshtigo girl, with such confidence.

I have no anxiety about finding this business. I'll look at a map ahead of time on the phone; leave plenty early, watch for signage and if I get lost I'll stop and call".there are times I've been told phone GPS won't work for a specific location and have no trouble at all. But it's good to know that if I have to call, there is a man with seemly endless patience at the other end of the phone. My phone always tells me what direction is north. In the old days, knowing my direction of travel was a seemly intractable problem unless it was sunset or sunrise.

Sooner or later I'll find it just like I found that place in Coleman. And it's good to know that there are people willing to spend a whole lot of time helping someone as hapless as me. One of the gifts of being older and wiser is being able to laugh at yourself, and being comfortable with your own shortcomings. I am no longer ashamed of admitting I got lost in Coleman; I'd even admit I got lost in Harmony one time.

Song stuck in my head " "Small Town" John Mellencamp.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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