Going My Way?


If someone publishes a directory of all the people in the world according to how strong their sense of direction is, and they put people who have a great sense of direction toward the top of the list, and people who have no sense of direction at the bottom of the list, don’t even bother thumbing through the book looking for my name. Just turn to the back. To the last page. There, at the bottom. That’s me.

My wife is on page 1. She doesn’t just have a good sense of direction; she has built-in radar. She thinks of GPS as a prosthetic device. She has been known to say, “GPS atrophies your mind. It numbs your brain. It makes you even less able to find your own way.” She’s assuming, though, that the direction-finding part of your brain isn’t already numb. Which mine is. I was born numb.

It’s bad to have no sense of direction, but it’s catastrophic if you have no sense of direction and also can’t read a map. Reading a map requires a certain frame of mind, I think, an ability to imagine yourself “up there,” like God, looking down on the earth, and then you hold that bird’s-eye view in your brain, and look around you, and translate what you saw from “up there” to “down here.” Which apparently indicates that another part of my brain was born numb. To me, a map is squiggles and shapes, a kind of Rorschach test that I’m doomed to fail.

Yes, I understand the basics of up north, down south, back east, and out west. But the details seem to be exceed my bandwidth. As a result, when I moved here to Ipswich, I gathered only a vague notion of how to get through the center of town. (Newcomers, beware: It’s very, very complicated.)

For starters, I needed to learn that Central Street becomes South Main Street and South Main Street becomes County Road, all of which are 133, but also 1A. OK, no problem. It’s all one street. It just has a number of aliases. (Possibly due to a history of trouble with the law.)

I also came to understand that I come more or less from my place on outer Linebrook (“out west”), and then I bend more or less to the right as I head toward Hamilton (“down south”). The operative phrase here, however, is “more or less.”

The reality is, I enter Five Corners heading southeast; and by the time I make that seemingly slight bend to the right after the Choate Bridge — by the time I pass Elm Street — I’m already headed totally south. Sure, the road wiggles back and forth as it passes through this part of town; but gosh darn it, it still feels “more or less” eastbound to me. It doesn’t feel really, truly southbound until you make that very distinct final right bend past the Museum and the Whipple House. In fact, when I first came to town, I thought if I turned off onto Elm Street, past the police station, I would be heading north. Not east. North.

Which made it almost impossible to become an Episcopalian.

“Let’s try the Episcopal church,” I said to my wife, the beautiful blonde human GPS unit.

Certainly I couldn’t bear the shame of turning on my actual GPS unit with her in the car. So we set out trusting my own sense of direction. Or lack thereof.

I knew Ascension, the Episcopal church, was somewhere up there, on County. But I didn’t want to negotiate that awkward cross-traffic move that gets you from 1A to the stop sign at County. So I turned off early, on Elm Street, and drove past the police station.

Of course, I thought I was heading north. I imagined when I came to the T at the end of Elm, I must be at Green Street. So I turned right — east, right? — to get over to County.

“Do you know where Ascension is?” my wife asked evenly as I turned right.

“Sure,” I replied, exuding false confidence. “It’s on County.”

“We’re on County now.”

Indeed we were. Before I knew it, we were approaching 1A — the very intersection I had tried to avoid — but from the north. I had only one thought: How the heck did I get here?

I can now certify that it’s possible to drive this route over and over again — Elm, County, South Main, Elm, County, South Main, all right turns — without ever arriving at Ascension Church.

But when you have no sense of direction, you learn to adapt.

“Let’s try the Baptists,” I finally said.

Cry Uncle



Oh, hello, Uncle! How are you?

No, sir, I assure you, I’m not just asking how you are because you put me in your will and I’m hoping you’re terminal. Not at all. Seriously: How are you?

Yes, Uncle, we’re still in Ipswich.

Well, yes, we love it here. It’s a beautiful town.

Really? You’re looking to invest here?

Well, I don’t know why I sound surprised, except that I am surprised. I never thought of you investing in a small town. I always thought of you as a big-city kind of guy.

Small towns are the wave of the future? I didn’t know that. I honestly don’t follow the latest business trends. I’m just a volunteer columnist for the local paper.

Yes, sir, I’m still doing that.

No, sir, you’re right: There isn’t much money in it.

Certainly, Uncle, I’ll tell you whatever you need to know about Ipswich. To the extent that I know the answers, of course. I haven’t been here very long, so there’s a lot I don’t know about yet.

Downtown business zoning? Well, I can tell you what I’ve read. Actually, this issue has been in the news over the past few weeks.

No, sir, there’s not much regulation of the storefronts downtown.

No, sir, nothing to especially encourage retail stores and restaurants to take space downtown.

Yes, Uncle, I guess you’re right: More retail and restaurants would bring more foot traffic to the downtown area.

Yes, sir, I understand that more foot traffic means more life and more revenue for the town.

Well, sir, I don’t know why there’s no such zoning regulation. Our Planning Board just turned one down a couple weeks ago.

Uncle, excuse me, but when you yell that loud, I can’t tell what you’re saying.

No, sir, there’s no requirement that storefront display windows be uncovered.

Uncle, I agree with you: keeping 70% of the window space uncovered, so people can see in, would make the downtown a lot more attractive.

Sir, I don’t know why they don’t require it. There was a proposal for a rule like this, but——

Yes, sir, the Planning Board shot it down.

Well, Uncle, I wouldn’t necessarily use that term to describe them.

Yes, sir, our daughter is in public school.

Well, yes, they were among the highest-ranked schools in the state, at one time.

I mean back when we were deciding which town to move to.

No, sir, actually, the number of teachers has just gone down.

Yes, sir, the number of students in each classroom has gone up.

Well, because of the override.

No, sir, we voted it down.

Uncle? Uncle? Excuse me, sir, but you don’t seem to be screaming in actual English anymore. Would you like to talk about this later? Maybe after you’ve had a martini?

Yes, Uncle, I’ve heard that you need strong schools or your town declines. “The town doesn’t prop up the schools; the schools prop up the town.”

Well, I can’t speak for the majority of voters, sir. I heard it was going to cost about $500 a year in increased taxes. People thought it was too much.

Yes, Uncle, I understand that our property values will decline by way more than that if our schools lose their rankings.

I’m sorry, Uncle. I don’t run the town. I only have one vote.

Signs? You mean like to help people find things? Well, we’re working on that.

Yes, sir, I understand the downtown area can’t thrive if people can’t find things like parking.

Well, there’s a committee.

Yes, they’ve been working on it.

Well, no, I think it’s been a bit longer than that.

Well, no, actually, I think it’s been a bit longer than that, too.


You’re getting warmer.

Uncle, may I just say, I think it would be great for you to invest in Ipswich. Start a business downtown. It would be good for the town, and——

No, Uncle, please don’t do that. Anything but that.

Please, Uncle! Not Rowley!

Ipswich can change, sir! I promise!

Uncle? Hello? Hello?