My kids know I don’t have a clue, geographically speaking

imageDuring my mini book tour to Watsonville, Calif., a few weeks ago, it became apparent that even as a 49-year-old I still have the directional sense of a standard windsock.

If not for the GPS system in the rental car, I would probably be outside of Reno looking for an on-ramp to Sacramento right now.

It’s a disorder many famous historical figures also suffered from, including Christopher Columbus, who discovered America completely by accident while looking for — if memory of sixth-grade history serves me — a faster trade route to WalMart.

I’m the kind of person who must enter and leave somewhere the same exact way in order to keep from getting lost, even if it means walking backwards out of a public facility, such as the men’s room at Safeco Field. I’ve actually had nightmares about being a contestant on The Amazing Race. In it, I am partnered with my friend David, who spent six years in the Marines and therefore still refers to distances as “clicks” — a unit of measure based on kilometers and the use of a special clicking device. Were I trying to find my way out of enemy territory, this device would be about as useful to me as, say…

A Superball. 

Because of this, my Amazing Race nightmare always starts and ends the same way, with everyone getting the first clue and then excitedly running off in the same direction. Except for me, who excitedly runs in the opposite direction — and off a cliff with my “clicker.”

It’s a short dream but always traumatic, especially when I wake up lodged between the bed and the wall “clicking” my TV remote.

Back when our oldest daughter entered middle school, I knew it was only a matter of time before my worst fears were realized and, as a parent, I would have to help her with geography. When she opened  her geography book and started talking about longitude and latitude, the prime meridian and flat map distortion, I knew it was time for me to buckle down and, as her father, at least try to get out of it by faking a seizure. Seeing her expression, I quickly realized I had already used this technique when asked about “where babies come from,” “algebra,” “geometry,” and why her favorite shirt was now tie-dyed.

The truth was, I used to be good at helping her with geography, back when we could pour all the major continents and countries onto the floor and put them back together, usually with some parts of Hawaii missing because, as I explained, they sank.

“C’mon, Dad. I need your help. I can’t figure the answer to this,” she said, pointing to the last question on her sheet:

Using this flat map, determine the distortion ratio between these two continents.

“OK, looks like The Soviet Union and Africa,” I said helpfully.

“The Soviet Union?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, tapping what I knew to be the world’s largest landmass, not counting Shaquille O’Neal.

“That’s Russia, Dad.”

Things weren’t off to a good start but I pressed on. According to the formula, all we had to do was determine the coordinates of the farthest points on each continent, add them up, factor in the distortion ratio, then decide how much a “D” on this assignment was going to affect her overall grade.

As it turned out, we actually DID figure out the correct answer. Don’t ask me how because I honestly don’t remember.

Heck, I don’t even remember how I got back from Watsonville…






(Ned is a syndicated columnist for News Media Corporation. You can write to him at, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

37 thoughts on “My kids know I don’t have a clue, geographically speaking”

  1. My son’s history teacher sent a letter home asking me to NOT help him with his assignments anymore. It said something about biases and political influences that weren’t relevant in Grade 8, blah, blah, blah. I stopped listening after the third sentence. Maybe you’ll get lucky that way too. :o)

      1. Geography is such a fluid subject. Borders are always changing due, in large part, to political interference designed to further corporate agendas. But sure! I’d be happy to take up Geography. I’m sure your daughter’s teachers are much more open minded. LOL! If not, I can always go for the seizure.

  2. I feel your pain Ned. Reminds me of the time my daughter asked me something about Nunavut. I had no idea what she was talking about. Oh, it’s in Canada btw…..

  3. Yeah, you are not alone Ned in your confusion with geography. My bet is that few understand it and most just don’t admit it. Scale, on many levels, is part of the problem – be it size or economic activity or population or whatever. We have a hard time intuitively grasping this because of the way we think. We like to see everything in as much detail as possible while still viewing the whole item at once. So, on a map, Rhode island will occupy a full page (scale to 37 miles in width). That same scale would put Texas on 20 side by side pages (774 miles in width). If we put Texas on one page – which most atlases will do – then the scale is 20 times smaller than Rhode Island to fit. And yet they are just a few pages apart in an atlas.

    The best way to get geography is to travel Ned – there is no other way. One night I was visiting my Boston girlfriend (years ago when I was trucking) and she decided that we were going drinking with a group of her friends. None asked my occupation and after a few drinks someone suggested a game whereby whoever could list the most contiguous US states, got their drinks for free for the rest of the night. We each had a sheet of paper and a pen and after about 10 minutes, I was done and had all the states, listed in order from North to South and East to West. Of the ten or so people there, the next best was 35 states and the average was about 25 states. I can’t remember the rest of the evening – Ha! The trick was that I had literally been in every one of those states – no one else had.

    Scale is tricky and they taught us in B-school how to make numbers look completely different by changing scales in business presentations. The one that always blows my mind is a model of the solar system – remember we used to do those in school? If we set the scale as the earth being the size of an orange, then the sun is 26 feet across (2 1/2 stories high) and Neptune is 14 miles away from the sun in our model. Hard to get that into the car – Ha!

    The long and short of it Ned is that geography is only easy if your have been there, otherwise we are all just as confused – you’re just willing to admit it and the rest of us aren’t – ha!

      1. Oh, don’t kid yourself Ned, I get lost a lot -the big difference is that I allow time to get lost and I realize that each time I do get lost is when I learn the most. When you are expecting to get lost, you start to enjoy it – all new and all unexpected. Ha! I used to haul fuel tankers (two trailers, 30 wheels, 140,000 pounds) and loved working weekends as there was less traffic, less bosses, less cops, etc. Anyway, I had to go from a loading facility across country to the customer and I had never been that way before. normally the drivers would travel back to the 4-lane and then double back. I struck out in a straight line on county roads – another driver had indicated he had done that before.I checked the map and it looked like a good route. Trouble was I missed a turn and figured I could take the next one when my boss – who happened to be on dispatch duty – called on the cell to find out where I was. I told him I had no idea and he flipped and lectured me on not getting lost with a tanker. i tried to explain that I knew the road that ran on my left and the one on the right – I just didn’t know where I was between them. Ha!

  4. “…the directional sense of a standard windsock.” OMG, ROFLMAO! And it just gets better. All acronyms aside, great post that made me laugh out loud after nearly vomiting on Samara’s most recent post. But the nausea is back, as I contemplate the beginning of school this year and my daughter’s first year of middle school, and exactly how much Xanax I’m going to need.

    1. Thanks, Tara! I’m glad to know I could stave off the vomiting for a little while 😉 And middle school… It’s a whole new world. So much drama, in so little time! Hang in there. And hang on to that Xanax, Tara!

  5. Omg you hilarious guy. There’s nothing specifically wrong with you. You must enter and leave via the same route, merely because you are male. It’s a thing, lol. 🙂

  6. You remind me of when my poor son had to learn about map coordinates, about latitude, longitude, and such. It absolutely did not click at all. As a former ship’s navigator, whose job was all about charts and getting the ship from here to there, on time, I don’t know how I gave birth to this boy. I tried to help him learn the stuff, but it was a no go. Looks like he’s going to have to be like his uncle (my brother), and get a Tom Tom for his car when he becomes a driver.

    1. Lol! He definitely sounds like me. I am not a numbers person in any way, so coordinates and such do me no good. Unless there are pictures involved, forget it.

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