Saturday, 1 May 2010

Quality of Life Improvement 16: The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

We've always had a predilection for maps—actually, anything to do with our physical existence on this planet. We spent most of our youth lost in a world of airline timetables, route maps, bethymetric charts, architectural design drawings, anatomical drawings and speculative evolutionary diagrams of Hominidae phylogeny based on the interpretation of skeletal remains and the fossil record.

Though it should go without saying, we were hopelessly uncool adolescents.

Our parents encouraged us to broaden our interests and to be like our older siblings, to do the normal things as they did, like surf or play football or have unsafe sex while experimenting with drugs. We answered that we'd be happy to go on a hike to gather wildflowers for use in fragrant potpourris. We'd would have been happy to bake hjertevafler for our Mormon cousins/distant neighbors/father's secretaries. We'd even whip the crème fraîche and carefully gather the fruit to make the preserves that could be enjoyed with the waffles ourselves. If that isn't enough, we could draw a stylish label for the Mason jar of preserves—no, we could design some stylish packaging for every element of a thoughtful gift-basket which you could then give to …

Though we were committed to our awkwardness, there were meagre consolations to our parents in these our "special" talents. By "special," they meant the talents of future homosexualists. If they needed any more evidence, it came in the form of our Christmas wish-list, which every year contained a plea for a subscription to Martha Stewart Living and a Nilfisk or Dyson vacuum.

Our families warmed to our advice about design, laundry and baking, not to mention that we often came in handy by knowing all the lyrics to every song by ABBA, and eventually, even our geography skills gained purchase within our family.

On a family road-trip in Italy that is forever seared in our memory, our father insisted on driving our rented Fiat up a steep, narrow one-way street in the medieval hill town of Montepulciano—the wrong way, against the correct flow of traffic. Then, as cars approached in the intended direction of travel, our father turned off the one-way street, around the next corner, hoping that this time he had found an appropriate thoroughfare. Unfortunately, the thoroughfare was an ancient, wide marble stairway leading precipitously down and out of the inner city. Unsurprisingly, we were reading a volume on Renaissance architecture which contained a selection of maps of Montepulciano. Both the day and the Fiat were saved.

The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection is an unusually diverse treasury of maps, arranged geographically and thematically, at The University of Texas at Austin, and access to the collection is remotely available through a website maintained by the University of Texas. We here at The Hawaiian Sybarite are embarrassed to admit how many hours we've spent devouring the Perry-Castañeda collection but like a true addict, we don't want to be alone in our addiction; We would like to turn you on to our cartographic habit.

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