Chicago dad: What kids lose when they can’t get lost

When I was 19, I took a construction job as summer help — that was my actual title — for a general contractor. I dug holes, pulled wire, installed breaker switches, schlepped what needed schlepping, cleaned the break trailer and proved that shit rolls downhill. I also delivered materials and equipment to job sites all over the place, a request that filled me with a low level, abject terror.

I was sure I’d get lost. I was usually right.

Deliveries were white-knuckle drives in a stick shift pickup truck held together by patches of primer and red paint. This rolling safety violation was equipped with 440 air conditioning: four windows down at 40 miles per hour. Alternating between sweating to death and suffocation, I had no choice but to use my 440 A|C as I wound my way through the refineries and empty streets of the industrial towns that dot Northwest Indiana — Hammond, Whiting, Gary, Munster — even as I feared that the directions I needed so badly would go flying out the window.

The worst thing that ever happened as I rattled from one place to another was this: I hung a right — too fast and too tight — to avoid missing a turn. That maneuver sent a large piece of metal scaffolding flying out the back of my truck and bouncing into the street behind me. By some miracle, no one was killed.

Smartphones and Google Maps are blessings that I was, quite literally, born for. The other day, I drove home from a meeting, listening to my phone amiably chat me toward my destination. It hit me how difficult it would be for me to get lost.

What I should have felt was a sense of delayed relief and given a quick mental hug and chuck on the shoulder to my teenage self, who still wrings his hands a little at the thought of getting turned around and not knowing how to get to where he needs to go. Those moments of having to breathe through panic and sort things out on my own were painful at the time. But they were good for me, too.

We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to know where our children are, at every moment, in order to fool ourselves that they are safe when we aren’t physically with them. My children will grow up thinking that their portable robot butlers will always be available to guide them.

Maybe that was why I took such satisfaction in winding my own way home, ignoring my phone’s pleasant, repeated entreaties that I make a U-turn.

You have to find your own way. It’s not always a direct route. You’re going to feel lost and helpless and stupid along the way. But those moments, when you’re lost, you find something out about yourself. Being lost taught me that I was more a visual learner than I thought, because I loved landmarks. The importance of quiet, rather than loud music, when I was trying to concentrate. The ability to put a crisis — in this case, being late — into perspective.

We grow into such large worries and grand public stages to screw up on. Knowing how to handle uncertainty is something that I’ll try to teach my kids, even if I have to block 100 apps to teach it.

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