One of the reasons Saul Steinberg’s iconic 1976 New Yorker cover – the one showing that civilization ends at the Hudson River – is so humorous is that it accurately captures the way some (many?) New Yorkers look at the rest of the world.


Before moving to Cleveland almost two decades ago, I lived in Washington, D.C., another city that all too often considers itself the only relevant reference point in the entire universe. So I had no illusions when I made the move to Cleveland — I knew that I was about to take up residence in what many consider fly-over country.


I don’t mind the jokes about my adopted city. (From my perspective, the funniest thing about the jokes is how little they have to do with the actual city in which I live.) I have gotten used to the occasional telephone conversation in which it is clear that the person on the other end is confusing Ohio with Iowa. Or even Idaho.


Nevertheless, it still catches me short when somebody asks me what time zone I am in. The question might make sense if Cleveland were anywhere near the time zone line. The fact is that it is a long way from Cleveland to the Central Time Zone. Before a Clevelander would have to re-set their watch to Central Time, he or she would have to go all the way across the rest of Ohio (more than 160 miles), and then he or she would have to go clear across Indiana (another 140 miles). Let’s put that into perspective. Cleveland is about as close to the Central Time zone as New York is to Richmond, Virginia.


The basis of this time zone confusion puzzles me. I am sure that very few people – even New Yorkers — would ever assume that, say, Fort Myers, Florida is in the Central Time Zone. Yet Cleveland and Fort Myers are at the same longitude (81 degrees west). For some reason, Cleveland apparently drifts out westward into the Plains States in the imaginations of many.


The time zone question is only one of the many things that show how much confusion there is about Cleveland’s location. On several occasions, I have had someone say to me, “There’s going to be a meeting in Cincinnati. Since its right there in your back yard, why don’t you attend?” The problem is that it is further from Cleveland to Cincinnati (250 miles) than it is from New York to Washington (229 miles). I doubt many New Yorkers think that Washington is right in their back yard.


An extreme example of this location confusion occurred when a colleague suggested to me that I ought to look into a business prospect in Evansville, Indiana, again as if that were right around the corner. However, it is further from Cleveland to Evansville (470 miles) than it is from Washington to Boston (442 miles).


I also know that in the popular imagination, Cleveland is very far north. Looking out the window now at my snow-covered yard, Cleveland certainly has the appearance of a northern city. But the fact is that at 41 degrees north, Cleveland is at the same latitude as Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul. For that matter Paris and Munich, at 48 degrees north, are both even further north than Montreal (46 degrees north). London, at 51 degrees north, is even further north than Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (50 degrees north). 


I know that Cleveland is not the only U.S. city that suffers geographical confusion. The U.S. is a big country and the geographic relationship of its many parts does not always conform to armchair assumptions (particularly to those of residents of the U.S. East Coast). For example, if a random sample of people were asked which city is further west, Atlanta or Detroit, just about everyone would say Detroit. However, Atlanta (at 84 degrees west longitude) is further west than Detroit (83 degrees west longitude).


There are a host of expectation-defying geographical features of this country. One of the most interesting and surprising has to do with El Paso. Most people would be very surprised to learn that El Paso is closer to San DIego (724 miles) than it is  to Houston (747 miles).


The surprising distance from El Paso to Houston is a reflection of the sheer size of Texas. I was interested during a recent trip to Germany to observe that Texas is almost twice the size of Germany in geographic area — Texas is 268,581 square miles, Germany is 137,847. (For some reason, this observation seemed to trouble my German hosts.) Texas, it turns out, is larger even than France (260,558 sq. mi.), which really kind of astonishes me. Texas is big. But though Texas is both the second largest and the second most populous U.S. state, its population (26 million) is less than a third of that of Germany (81 million) and less than half of France (65.3 million).


A few years ago, before smart phones became ubiquitous, I was out at a business dinner, and it suddenly became extremely important to my table mates for us to determine whether California or Japan is geographically larger.  Large stakes depended on the answer to this question. We thought of an industry colleague whom we all agreed would still be at work despite the late hour. (She was.) We called her and she was able to determine for us that California (165,695 sq. mi.) is materially larger than Japan (145,925 sq. mi.) But though California is the most populous U.S. state, its population (38 million) is less than a third of that of Japan (126.6 million).


The extreme case of this mismatch between geographic area and population density is the comparison between the U.S. and China. The two countries are about the same size (roughly 3.7 million square miles), but China’s population (1.35 billion) is about four times that of the U.S. (315 million). There are a lot of empty places in the U.S. – and no, that wasn’t a reference to Oakland.


We live in an age of GPS devices and smart phones with map applications. At any moment, we can fix our own physical location with pinpoint precision. The entire world has been turned into one gigantic diagram with a continuous read-out to tell everyone “you are here.” However, it doesn’t do anyone any good to know you are “here” if you don’t have any idea where that is and how it all fits together.


So – in case you hadn’t noticed, it does kind of bother me when people don’t know what time zone Cleveland is in. Ladies and Gentlemen, Cleveland is in the Eastern Time Zone. So are Detroit, Indianapolis, Dayton, and Chattanooga. And so is Quito, Ecuador.


There is more to knowing where you are than just establishing your own physical location.