(Absolute) Location [is] (Relative)

Location (n): a place of settlement, activity,
residence; a place or situation occupied.

In teaching the notion of location and its importance, geographically speaking or otherwise, there are two distinct interpretations of location: the absolute and the relative. Within these two, the absolute location is finite and equally accessible to anyone with the appropriate tools. The relative? Well, that’s all… relative.

My students are always much more comfortable with the idea of absolute locations: finite, precise, calculable [Though when it does come to plotting or locating coordinates of latitude and longitude they are not so categorically receptive.] That every point on the planet has a unique and precise location is comforting. Everything in its place, right?

Erm… well, until we get relative.

I always use the idea of home to introduce the notion of relativity, even in the context of the absolute. I tell my students that I live in an orangey-colored building with white trim in the Mission. Could they find me? Someone always says, “Yeah, I could.” (Stalker?) Then I ask them if my home has a precise absolute location. They say yes. I tell them that I live at specific coordinates of latitude and longitude. Can they find my house now? “Yes!” they say with confidence.

“Wait, how would I know I was at those coordinates?” A contemplator always asks.
“GOOGLE MAPS!!” They exclaim. [Damn. Yes, that is true-ish.]

I ask them if anyone could find my house based on my earlier description. Someone could, they say, if they lived in the neighborhood… Possibly, though the property maps now list my address as Noe Valley, even though most people would call it the Mission.

Relativity is so confusing.

I tell them I live behind the blue building that faces a green building. Could they find me now? “Your neighborhood sounds weird,” they say.

I ask them what they need to find my house.

“Your address, DUH.” They roll their eyes. It is ####, I say.

“We need the whole address,” they say.

We go around and around. I ask them if I tell them that I live across from X and above X, and there is a huge tree in front of the building, they can find me. “That is how a girl gives directions,” Boy #1 says.


We talk about the different ways that people (perhaps men v. women, it seems I keep discovering new divides between the Martians and Venutians) give directions from most precise to most relative, like using cardinal directions, quantifiable information like number of miles, blocks, streets, time, unique geographical features, proximity to specific places, color and other descriptors…. How do they differ and how do they give directions? I ask.

“Well, my dad always uses miles and street names. It seems like it’s the most clear.”
– What about someone who uses Km, or doesn’t speak English, I ask.
“Girls are always describing how to get somewhere based on all that other stuff.” [Boy #1]
“No, I would use color and stuff to tell someone who knows the area how to get to my place,” [Boy #2]
– How do you know who is going to have the correct prerequisite information, I ask.
“You would know.” [Boy #2]

I have to agree with this… the insider/outsider phenomenon supersedes even gender tendencies in working with locations, I think.

We draw maps and routes to specific places and pass them around to see who could use them and who would need more, or more universal, information. Suddenly maps to the best head shop on Telegraph become alien treasure maps. We draw maps of their school: an absolute location, they agree. The differences are striking: what is placed in the middle, who includes the surrounding area to establish context –> relativity! The size of buildings correspond to familiarity over true scale, details emerge that disclose where they spend the majority of their days. No two maps are even remotely similar, let alone the same.

– The absolute is so relative, I say, feeling like Sherlock Holmes (only taller.)

“How annoying!” They cry (and I hear A chime in with her robot mindset and pragmatism… how dare I remove the black and white from the few remaining places absent that annoying grey area!)

But, in this argument, I stand firm. The notion of absolute is limited, and not even all that accurate in the end. Do we need to even discuss absolutism? You know how I feel about any sort of absolute truths… Without relative context, what use is the absolute, anyhow? So, you have some coordinates of latitude and longitude. What does that mean? Who cares? What is special about those coordinates? Why would we want to look at that precise, particular, unequivocably unique place if we had no relative interest…?

And from the other side of things, the locations themselves fluctuate between the absolute and the relative as well. I will never forget the morning I flew to San Diego on December 26, 2004 and en route the captain began to announce the news coming out of Thailand about the tsunami that had resulted from an earthquake in the Indian Ocean less than 12 hours before. The news had been spotty, it turns out, because shit got tossed on the Andaman coast. I listened with curiosity more than anything else. Thailand was only a place I could find on a map (I had not even heard of Koh Samui when I saw Meet the Parents four years earlier… what is that I had thought…) and I was (am) pretty geographically literate, well-traveled, even.

When I got to San Diego Dr. I was reading the news in the oh-so-marginal Union-Tribune. The casualty list included so many people from Sweden and Australia (I would learn later that someone I knew had gone missing, as well) and I remember thinking, “Why so many Swedes?”

Just about a year later, I would have my first foray into The Land of Smiles, and at that point, the absolute nature of Thailand would shift into something much more relative. Less than six months after that I would return and the relativity would shift again. A year later I would take A & Dr. I to Thailand, almost with expert status. The idea that I ever wondered about Swedes and Aussies in Thailand, or what Koh Samui was, or the allure of Thailand beyond curry and beaches, seemed as foreign as Koh Samui once had.

The absolute becomes relative.

I am place-centric in that I identify with the places I inhabit – and I am certain that I am influenced by the places as much or more than I identify with them. I am absolutely from the Bay Area, but my place of origin becomes relative depending on whom I am talking to, as well as the point of emphasis I am trying to make. Am I a Californian? An American? A NorCal girl? A “citizen-of-the-world” (oh, how I loathe that expression in its absolutist relativism… ironic?)

If I were to make room for an absolute truth, it would be this: where I am right now, in every literal or figurative way, is absolutely a product of all the locations that I have experienced in their absolute and relative expressions. And so it goes…

…the more absolute experiences I have the more relative I become.

About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Geography, Home, Life, Perception, Travel, true stories, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to (Absolute) Location [is] (Relative)

  1. Debby says:

    From my place of birth, all things relative, I think I am part saguaro.
    Your post also reminded me of a couple things:
    The Handmade Map Association http://www.handmaps.org/book.html
    an article in Slate from 2010:

    • Amanda says:

      *Loved* that Slate article… and I come away with the same sentiment… the only thing that makes any map worthy is relativity. Thanks for the links!

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