I’ve been forever baffled by directions. I had to take the same route home from elementary school every day or follow someone who knew a different way. When family members snickered at my Aunt Jenny for having to return home between any two errands or risk getting lost, I didn’t laugh. I filed that trick away for future use, along with Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb stratagem.
Turning for help to people who have a “sense of direction” is rarely helpful. They point and explain in ways I can’t follow, and their maps, homemade or professional, are equally indecipherable and exhausting. We Aunt Jennys are doomed to spend too many hours hanging around where we can’t get lost or venturing forth in bad company just for the ride.
The first time I found myself alone in the car with a Global Positioning System was when a friend loaned me an early version for my first solo drive to my kids’ far-away colleges. Back then, GPS was a box with a tail that plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter. The box had a suction cup on its back that never successfully stuck to the dash or windshield.
I forgave the system’s incompetent suction cup the moment it spoke up in a clear, female-sounding robot voice and led me smoothly through freeway and lane changes. She was so helpful I could periodically unclamp my hands from the steering wheel to allow blood flow!
Several hours into that initial drive through darkening mountains, GPS and I turned a long, slow curve and came upon an enormous waterfall. Except the word enormous is not enormous enough, and it wasn’t a waterfall. It was massive billowing waves of fog, cascading down a mountainside. I said something like, “Wow! Look at that!” She made no reply.
I was disappointed but impressed. She was establishing her boundaries.
After that, I included GPS whenever I rented a car, and she eased me through my scariest directional challenges, book gigs in far-flung locales. Even when she had different voices, accents and implied genitalia, I knew she was still my GPS; I recognized her by her calm professionalism and consideration. And now she, or her great-great-granddaughter, is in my phone.
I tap the little map on the mosaic of on-screen-icons and she unfurls. I type the address I’d like to arrive at, press “Go” and she talks me across town like she’s talking a kid down from a tree limb or ‘shrooms.
Unlike the giddy robot who calls with carpet-cleaning or cruise ship congratulations, or the one with an urgent freak-out message from an imaginary IRS, GPS’s tone is confident and trustworthy. Sometimes she repeats things; she seems to know I’m easily distracted. Sometimes she three-peats a suggestion. This does not annoy or exasperate her.
Unlike the insufferable Grammar Monster app in my computer, GPS doesn’t imply an eye-roll at my stupidity or offer me a bunch of alternatives as if where I’m headed is anybody’s guess. (In case you think I’m paranoid about Grammar Monster, at the end of the week it sends me a snotty report card, comparing my productivity and accuracy to all its other clients. GPS would never do that.)
Sometimes GPS believes I know more than I do. Like which direction is north or how far away 600 feet is. I’m flattered, but just in case, to spare me the possibility of embarrassment, she rephrases it: “Take the exit, she says with zero contempt. Or “continue to the route,” which she pronounces “root,” which is endearing.
Occasionally, I feel just a tiny bit nagged, but I know GPS has my best interests at heart. Except for once, and that may have been my fault. I thought she knew I meant Glendale when she took me to the same address in Burbank. Neither of us has mentioned it since, of course.
We all want different things from our magic helpers. My brother’s car not only guides him to his destination, it is also a phone and garage-door opener. It even helps him park and back up without having to turn his head or consult his mirrors. It’s not quite driverless, but I can see where things are headed.
Some say GPS makes us lazy, inattentive, stupid about landmarks and immune from learning from our own mistakes. I wouldn’t put it past Grammar Monster to believe that. But except for her resistance to small talk and her refusal to be wowed by wondrous weather, Aunt Jennys like me can’t complain. She opens the road and sets us free.
Amy Koss is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Times Opinion.