At this point in my life, I’m used to getting lost. There are some people who have no idea how lucky they are, blessed with an organic compass embedded into their brains, but I’m not one of them. To give you an idea of how easily I can lose my bearings, at my neighborhood mall, once I enter a store, on the way back out, I have to pause and remember and look around and figure out whether I need to take a left or a right to begin the always-challenging journey back to my car. And most likely, there will be more dithering at the parking lot as I struggle to recall just where I parked.
I’ve been lost, but there’s always a first time, and for me, it was sixth grade. Remember sixth grade? My guess is that most guys don’t want to remember. My reign as the supreme fifth grader in my elementary school had come to an abrupt end. Once again I was the lowest man on the totem pole, and maybe even more frightening, I was actually becoming a man, with hair down there and pink, pustular pimples blooming wildly over the meadow of my forehead. And to make matters worse, I was in a completely different building and had a paltry ten minutes to traverse wings and floors to get to my next class.
My locker was on the second floor, which I somehow found again through pure luck after my first class, but there was no way I was going to make the next one in time. As the seconds ticked down, every hall, every door looked like the one before it, and the back of my shirt dripped with panic sweat. The bell rang, an awful, heart-rending sound of metal striking metal. If not for the pity of an upperclassman who led me to the classroom, I never would’ve made it to Social Studies.
The only way I can get anywhere in New York is with a map, but even with one, it’s never a walk in the park, especially if the park is Central Park, where one time it became a giant, verdant labyrinth that I circled and re-circled for two hours before stumbling upon a way out. Every time the subway dumps me out onto the next stop, I almost laugh at the choices offered to me. Northwest corner or northeast corner of whatever street – like it would make a difference. What happens when I climb the stairs back to street level is this:
- Stare at map.
- Pick a direction, any direction.
- Arrive at the next street and turn around, because I was walking the wrong way.
There’s actually a term for this malady from which I suffer: developmental topographical disorientation, or its fancier, more medical-sounding cousin, topographagnosia. There are ones who have it really bad, folks who can’t recall the path to the bathroom of their own house, usually due to brain damage. I’m better off than that, and thanks to the wonders of technology, I dare say that I’m almost feeling normal nowadays.
First came Mapquest, which let me create a step-by-step guide to arrive at a destination, though it was Google Maps with its bells and whistles like alternate routes and reverse directions that gave me more confidence to navigate the roadways. Still, these were just patches, not actual solutions. Every time I went to a party at some unknown location, I slaved over the computer to print out directions to and fro from the place, and if the event took place at night, it made me doubly uncomfortable.
What has eradicated my fear of getting lost once and for all is a small device that now sits on the corner dashboard of my car, watching over me like a sentry: my Garmin GPS. It’s not perfect, sometimes offering convoluted connect-the-dots paths when a more direct route exists, or plotting a course using slower back roads when a highway is just a jump away. Common sense trumps the microprocessor inside the unit, but if I’m in some city I’ve never been, there’s no question in my mind that I’d rather have the Garmin guide me than a paper map. Last month, I drove to our nation’s capital for my book tour, and I was about to take the exit for the Martin Luther King Library. Except I couldn’t, because a cop car was blocking the ramp. Before the GPS, this was the stuff of nightmares. I’d have to pull over and pour over the map and eventually call the library for directions, but with the GPS, all I had to do was pass the exit, wait for it to recalculate a different route, and arrive with my sanity intact.
Some people see the GPS as evidence of modern sloth, that we’ve become too lazy to flip through an atlas. Others view it as a potential source of weakness, that because we’ll get so dependent on it that we’ll never learn how to get anywhere. An anti-GPS friend recently asked me, “What if the thing dies on you in the middle of a trip? What then?” I joked that I’d find the nearest electronics store and buy another one (which actually is probably exactly what I’d do), but really, this is a poor argument. Has the possibility of an automotive breakdown ever stopped anyone from driving a car?
As far as I’m concerned, my GPS has become a game-changing device, equal to microwaves and cell phones and computers. It has fundamentally altered the way I relate to the world. Never again will I have to worry about where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. I still have plenty of other problems in my life, but I can check this one off the list.