Born to be a Geographer?

By Adena Schutzberg

I used to think it was odd I ended up a geographer. I did not pore over maps as a child or volunteer to read the AAA trip-tik on vacations with my family. I didn’t particularly enjoy memorizing where all the countries of Europe were in Mr. Hughes’ 8th grade social studies class. But now I am realizing I was an observer of space even then; it was just space on a larger scale.

Let’s start back in eighth grade. I recall my glee when I finally set up my bedroom the way I liked it, and the way it would remain until I left for college. I used my new and then very hip six-foot white bookcases to create a barrier between the side of the room with my bed and the side with my desk and bureau.

In high school I got my first real job as a “picker” at a ski clothing warehouse during the summers. My job was to push a wheeled cart around the huge floor and fulfill orders for different stores. It was physically hard work done in ten hour shifts, four days on, four days off, all summer. I was good at it; I was accurate and fast. I could look down the order form and figure out how to get everything in one pass from the back of the building to the front. I could figure out when it made sense to drag the cart and when it was faster to leave the cart at the end of the aisle and carry the turtlenecks in my arms. (Don’t tell anyone, but my brother and I got paid a bit more than the other summer help.)

I studied a large scale problem for my master’s thesis. I like to kid around about the topic because I love the looks of astonishment I get. Yes, I really did do my master’s research on the Penn State Blue Band. The idea hit me like a rock one day as I wandered the halls of Walker Building bemoaning my lack of a thesis topic well into my second year in the department. First I realized that mapping out the marching band members on the field was a geographic problem for the director. Then I realized that making sense of the football field space was a geographic problem for the musicians.

I even had a “transitional” job after I finished graduate school that tapped my large scale spatial skills: I worked in the stockroom at Crate and Barrel. I got to decide where everything went. I made sure the really breakable stuff was better protected than the not-quite-so-breakable stuff. When a salesperson came in for a dozen more of those “snowman mugs” I knew exactly where they were and how many we had. That large scale (small area) management was so intuitive, so natural, so “fun.”

All that brings me up to the present where I continue, mostly unconsciously so far as I can tell, to hone in on the challenges of small areas. Over the last few months I’ve been astonished to find that I am perhaps in the minority when it comes to considering how “crowds” navigate narrow pathways as they run into obstacles.

This incident occurred before the winter holidays in 2010. The hall where my band rehearses and performs has two main doors from the lobby. Typically, if you sit on the right side of the stage you use that door and if you sit on the left you use the other door. (Heaven forbid a clarinet might use the same door as a trombone! Actually, that reality probably has interesting results in terms of “who knows whom.”) In any case, one night before rehearsal I was doing my regular task of bringing music stands up from the basement to use for rehearsal. After one “lap” I found one of the band members chatting with our featured singer standing right in the path of the open right hand door. I approached carrying four music stands; that’s not so easy, if you’ve never tried it. The pair did not move, but I figured by the next time I made the roundtrip they’d be gone. Nope. Not even when others joined me to bring stands or just their instruments into the hall did these two people move. I must have walked around them four or five times. To this day I can’t figure out, nor am I brave enough to ask, what was going on in the minds of these two smart, talented, typically attentive individuals.

I ran into a different sort of obstacle in January of this year when I visited Redlands, CA for the GeoDesign Summit and stayed at the very nice Ayers Hotel. It’s just a few blocks from Esri. Part of the charm of the place is a full, fancy, cooked-to-order breakfast. Each morning the small dining room was full of people trying to carry orange juice, coffee and plates of omelettes to their tables. Many had backpacks or computer bags with them too. The flow in there was challenging at best. Why? I think it was the very nice, but large and tall high backed chairs selected for the dining area. They took up valuable space and obscured parts of the room, at least for me who looks at the world from 5 ft. 1 in. Those taller than I found their bags bumped the chair backs. When people tried to “pull in” to allow passage, the huge chairs seemed to have nowhere to go! I gave up and decided the “to go” breakfast was a better choice than navigating that traffic challenge each morning.

This month I found some obstacles that would not move, even though they were in fact moving. I was taking the bus down to the local plaza for lunch. It was a Saturday, a day the bus is always crowded as folks try to do their grocery shopping and get their kids haircuts. Two friends were standing in the aisle, chatting, just beyond the seats with the “please make these seats available to seniors and those with disabilities” stickers. There were seats further back on the bus, but none ahead of where they were standing. Thus, those who wanted to make the aforementioned seats available had nowhere to go! Only after someone tried to pass with an “excuse me” did it occur to these ladies (one of whom carried what I think was a viola on her back, making her “double wide” in the aisle) that sitting down or moving further back might eliminate the back up.

Why do I notice these things? I like my space. I’ll happily seek out the empty area in front of the fireplace at the local coffee shop even if it’s 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the shop. I’ll happily avoid prestigious marathons, like the Boston Marathon, to forego the crowds. I’ll happily go to the gym at 1:00 pm when it’s empty so I can use my favorite corner of the mats and get my favorite elliptical machine (the one on the aisle in the second row).

I guess I was born to be a geographer, just a very large scale geographer.

Published Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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