More than a decade ago, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, and during the last few months of my studies as a structural engineering student, I worked as an undergraduate research assistant at the USC Tsunami Research Group, where I struggled more or less unsuccessfully to take the video feeds of wave tests undertaken at Oregon State and convert them into two-dimensional images of the run-up patterns that would indicate the sort of tsunami damage that would vary based on the strength of a simulated tsunamigenic earthquake as well as the bathymetry of the simulated seafloor. More successfully, I answered the phone and provided papers written and co-written by the graduate researchers and professors concerning various tsunamis worldwide and the implications of such research. Whenever there is an earthquake around the world, especially along one of the oceanic trenches that mark the various plates according to plate tectonics, I always think about my former colleagues and their work, and wish them well for the sake of those who live in harm’s way around the ring of fire and other similar places. All of this occurred in a fairly modest office in a quiet corner of the university, where few people ever went, unless they knew where they were going.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fond of maps . Maps are a two-dimensional representations of a more complicated reality, and as such are always a simplification of what is actually present. This is not harmful as long as we realize it is a simplification, or that there is more to the reality than we see on a map. For example, this evening I went to pick up some books to review from a local independent publisher , and I only discovered the publisher’s existence from looking at Google Maps, and inquiring further about the company near an intersection I drive by on a regular basis. As a child I would plan long car trips to and from Central Florida, where I lived at the time, with roadmaps and atlases, pondering how much time we would have to drive, what cities were likely to have good places to stop and eat at, and what historical sites, forts, and battlefields I wanted to visit along the way. At times the roads were not precisely the way they were described on the maps, but even where the conditions were different than the map, I was at least not entirely without knowledge because I had at least some understanding of the reality even of places I had never seen, so I was never hopelessly lost without remedy, even if I did not know exactly how to get to the place I was aiming for. This spatial awareness, I have since discovered, is not a universal quality.
Despite my skill at reading maps, I have always been terrible at drawing. The kindest words that have been said about my drawings are that they are surrealistic, or that my drawings of buildings resembled buildings as they are instead of how they should be. At worst, my drawings have expressed in pencil or ink the horrors that are inside my mind, and as such give me little pleasure to look at, or to continue to draw. While when it comes to painting with words I have the ability to write at least sometimes with more restraint than I actually feel, but when it comes to drawing everything comes out tormented, which is vastly less pleasant to deal with. And so when it comes to drawings I tend to appreciate the work of others who have greater skill in such matters, than my own too-honest and too-candid works. After all, art is often far more enjoyable when it is done with a certain skill at making something beautiful, and the skill of making things beautiful, especially when it comes to drawing, is a skill that I happen to lack. Skill at creating visual art is not a universal quality either, as I have found much to my chagrin.
A few years ago, during a particularly desperate time in life, I paid my bills with my modest skills at door-to-door sales. Walking in the sort of attire that I wore to church for many hours at end, accosting businesspeople at their workplaces was a brutal school of rejection, and it was equally brutal on my poor, suffering feet, not least because at the time I was struggling with my second gout attack, which unsurprisingly lasted for months because I was unable to let my feet rest because they were my means for eking out survival. It was not a good time. Yet although the knowledge that living by my charisma and sales acumen was not the most successful way for me to live, there was at least one aspect of it that I found to be of enduring worth in a positive sense, and that was the way that the places we see are often far more dense with worthwhile business than we would immediately assume. Quite often I have found a quiet place to eat and read or a quirky business worth shopping at, or a worthwhile route to travel between point A and point B because of this love of exploring terrain. It is easy to become familiar with a routine and forget that there is more than meets the eye, if we will only trouble ourselves to look closely.
 This is a fondness I often write about. See, for example: