A different version of this piece first appeared in Issue 10 of The Magazine.
My in-laws, the Krutzels, live just ten minutes away. We visit fairly frequently. Each time I drive to their home along Route 9, as I approach their exit, I repeat a stupid mnemonic device in my head: “The Kwutzels live in the west.”
I say this line to myself each time I drive to their house so that I’ll remember which of the two exits I need to take: Hill Road East, or Hill Road West? When we first moved to New Jersey, I couldn’t even remember if which exit I took depended upon the direction I was traveling on Route 9. Thus was born the Kwutzels.
I am terrible at directions.
In the beginning
When I got my driver’s license at 16, I occasionally wanted to drive beyond the confines of my hometown of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. This was before GPS devices or smartphones were a thing. Instead, when you wanted to know how to get somewhere, you asked Dad, and Dad took out a massive folded map.
I’m bad at directions. I’m awful at maps.
Worse than the maps that Dad would cart out were the directions that he’d provide. Dad’s directions were copiously detailed: “You’ll go past the following four exits: 222, 422, 422 Business, and Pennsylvania 39. And you’ll pass billboards for several restaurants, and a business center with a blue roof. Turn right at the seventh traffic light after the blue roof.”
I would climb in my car and wend my way through my six stapled sheets of directions, sobbing hysterically as I tried to figure out whether I was still on the prescribed or was instead hopelessly lost.
The university of hard lefts
The one at-fault accident I’ve ever been a part of happened during my college years. Staci and I had gone to the mall that day, and were now headed back home to Brandeis. We became increasingly lost.
We ended up somewhere in Boston. This was a problem. Staci and I both grew steadily more upset: We had no clue where we were. The only reason I wasn’t scream/sobbing was that there was another human being in the car, and that human was female.
As we entered YAR (Yet Another Roundabout), we saw salvation: State Police headquarters just ahead! I flipped on my signal to turn right into the station, and I would have gotten away with it too, were it not for the car immediately to our right that I turned into instead.
The roundabout was one goddamn lane, but it immediately became two lanes when you exited the circle. In my defense, the lane markings didn’t indicate that important fact for another several hundred feet, and I was lost, and I was working really hard not to cry in front of a girl.
The two police officers in the parking lot, ready to head home for the day as I literally crashed into the State Police headquarters, took pity on me. By which I mean, after they issued me a $400 ticket for “unsafe turning,” they told me how to get to Brandeis. (Study, study study!)
Truth is, I’m not so great at remembering directions. We made it back, but it was Staci’s job to memorize the directions. I get panicky and can no longer recall whether I was supposed to go left on Hawkins and right on Smithburg, or go left on Smithburg and curl into a ball crying.
When my then-fiancée (and now wife) Lauren and I moved to Los Angeles after college, that was a big challenge for me. Everyone drives everywhere in Los Angeles, and the roads follow no discernible pattern. Freeway names are always prefixed with “The,” as in the 405, the 10, the 110, and the 210. There are a couple major roads named Canyons of some sort, and everyone says that one is better than the other, though not everyone agrees. There’s a Little Santa Monica and a Big Santa Monica.
I was screwed.
Lauren quickly learned the ideal way to give me directions. “Head to the stupid intersection, then turn like you’re going to go to Target, but at the light before you’d turn towards target, turn the other way to get to the supermarket.”
Lauren further observed that, very often, my navigational instincts were what experts refer to as “dead fucking wrong.” She eventually coached me that, in general, if I felt lost and my inclination was to turn right, I should turn left instead. That approach worked decently for a while, but then I thought too much: “I think I should turn left, so I’m going to go right, but because I’m going to go right, that probably means I should actually turn left instead.”
That’s my language. Or at least, it was, for years. Technology has dramatically improved my life on many fronts, and modern computing been the source of my primary income for all of my adult working life—but no single technological advancement has done more to ensure my overall sanity than GPS. I mean, TiVo helped my sanity a lot, since I no longer single-handedly needed to keep the VHS tape label industry in business while capturing all the television I craved, but still: GPS takes the “most improved sanity” award in the Friedman Olympics.
Even before GPS, the advent of cell phones, just those regular dumbphones, any trip behind the wheel of a car where I headed some place I wasn’t sure how to get, my impending death seemed like a very real possibility. I was certain that there was a chance I’d never find my way back home, and that I’d get so lost that I’d never be seen by humanity again. An irrational fear to be sure, but one that consumed me nonetheless. Not unlike my fear of accidentally ingesting eggplant. Anyway, once I had a phone, I felt reassured.
But the freedom that GPS affords me is matched only by the sense of freedom I felt when I first got my license and a car: Then, I knew I theoretically could go anywhere. With GPS, now I know I actually can do it. Except for, you know, Australia.
Laws and in-laws
I use both a third-party GPS unit from a few years back, and a trio of navigation apps on my iPhone, depending upon which car I’m driving and what USB charging cable is inside it. Whichever I’m using, so long as the road it’s suggesting I turn onto exists, I’ll heed its advice.
For some folks, ignoring the instructions their navigational software provides is a badge of honor. By “some folks,” I mean, “my wife’s parents.”
“It wants us to take the turnpike? I’m not doing that. That’s stupid. I’m gonna cut across on 33, turn behind the Wawa, and avoid the traffic.” They say these things, and I have no idea what they mean. But I don’t care, because I have the GPS.
(Direction-related conversation happens more than you might realize. I always try to act like I know what people are talking about, and go with the wisdom of the crowd. At a recent birthday party, one mom asked whether she could turn left out of the lot to pick up something called 34 and take it west to the mall. I had no idea. So I waited until the other parents in the group started nodding in the affirmative, and I joined in. If I’m the only one around when these questions come up, I try to use the same cold-reading style that talking-to-the-dead scam psychics employ: I’ll nod slowly, say tentatively “I… think so…”, ready to shift gears the moment my inquisitor shows any hesitation.” As I’ve written previously, I’m a liar.)
The point is, unlike my in-laws, I listen to and trust the GPS. If I make a wrong turn—or if, on some whim of insanity, I actually do ignore the GPS’s instruction, I know it will forever remain patient, recalculating as needed, to get me where I’m going. But even if I question whether it’s really efficient to zigzag through town, I know that the GPS has my best interest—reaching my destination—in mind. After Siri, the voice that tells me “Now, turn right” is maybe my best friend in the whole wide world.
We have the technology
The downside, of course, is that this basically means I’ll never improve at directions. I’d love to get good at navigation, to truly comprehend maps when I look at them, to internalize the way the roads are laid out, instead of doing my best to simply memorizing which streets connect to which other ones. And I’ve tried.
But now that I can rely on navigational devices and apps to get me from Point A to Point B, whatever learning I’m doing comes more slowly than ever. You sense-of-direction-possessing norms can relate, if not sympathize directly: How many of your friends’ phone numbers or email addresses have you memorized now that your iPhone remembers them all? How many facts—addresses, names, office hours—do you fail to remember, knowing that they’re a simple Web search away? And do you set your iPhone wallpaper to a snapshot of your children’s faces, so that you can remember what they look like now that you stare at your smartphone all the time?
Technology’s a crutch, and lets us offload an increasingly large portion of our brains. I’m okay with it, because I’m assuming that I’m using that freed-up brain space to store other important things instead. As soon as I remember one, I’ll tell you.
But the fact is this: I love my GPS. I’d literally be lost without it.