Thursday, January 02, 2014

Wrap Your Head Around This

For pretty much all of my life I have lived on relatively small plots of land.

My childhood home had modest-sized front and back yards. In college I lived in a dorm for a couple of years, then shared apartments for a while. Had one interesting year in grad school living in the “groom’s quarters” with Vera, actually just another apartment attached to a barn. We lived in what was basically an oversized closet when spending a year abroad in France. Got to house sit after that in what seemed a palace at the time owned by a long-time prof, a fairly big two-story house with a decent sized yard and garden. But even that place wasn’t too big to wrap one’s head around.

From there we were in another apartment, then a house in one of those “cookie cutter” neighborhoods where you could just about reach your neighbor through an open window. And now finally we’re on the farm. With 15 acres. Some trees around the edges, but most of it is cleared.

It’s a big space. Challenges comprehension, almost.

The house we’re in isn’t especially big -- in fact it is about the same as the one we left, square-feet-wise. But it has been interesting to watch our now 12-year-old cat Sweetie tentatively explore the new space.

Sweetie’s an indoor cat, her somewhat skittish ways providing a fairly stark contrast to the three rambunctious and social “barn cats” we’ve inherited. She remained under the bed almost exclusively for the first couple of days, then ventured out little by little to get to know the kitchen, living room, and (thankfully) the litter box.

She tiptoes cautiously, keeping very low to the floor as she moves in a manner that recalls the origin of the phrase “cat burglar.” I suppose she’s slowly performing a kind of “cognitive mapping” of the space, gradually taking it in and rebuilding it piece by piece in her mind’s eye.

By the way, that picture up above is a cartoon I clipped and kept near my desk for many years some time back. I only just came across it again during the packing and unpacking. That’s how I imagine Sweetie working out all the new angles she’s been encountering this week.

As someone with a terrible sense of direction, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of cognitive mapping. As I’ve told colleagues many times before, it’s kind of an irony that I found a profession that lands me in casinos so often, places the design of which can challenge even the most able-minded cognitive mappers.

I am notoriously lacking when it comes to processing directions for getting from one place to another. Having been to a place before -- even multiple times -- doesn’t ensure I’ll be able to get back. In fact, I’ll admit that in this new house I’ve found myself walking to the bedroom and missing the entrance about a half-dozen times as my brain stubbornly keeps providing me incorrect information about its location.

I remember a chapter in a book by Fredric Jameson called Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, one of many “theory” books I read in grad school, in which he spoke of cognitive mapping. If I remember it correctly, he used the concept as a kind of emblem for postmodernism and individuals living in confusing worlds in which it was difficult to orient oneself. (I could have that wrong -- the memory is dim.) I recall there also being a section in there somewhere about Las Vegas and its disorienting architecture, too.

Anyhow, those who build houses and buildings or plan towns and cities don’t really need to work that hard to confuse your humble scribbler. Who becomes ever more humbled whenever he’s forced to remember his way back somewhere following any journey requiring more than two turns.

I feel like Sweetie’s doing an okay job working out her new space, but I still feel more than a little disoriented in mine. Part of me wants to walk the entire 15 acres every day, just to reinforce the idea that I am actually “living” on it all.

But another part of me knows I might get lost!

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