GP-Yes!

By Sung J. Woo

Essay

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:

  1. Stare at map.
  2. Pick a direction, any direction.
  3. 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.

My Garmin, My Love

My Garmin, My Love

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.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “GP-Yes!”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by kristen |Edit This
    2009-10-27 04:36:24

    Hee–totally feel ya on this front!

    “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.”

    Exactly.

    Nicely written, as well. Love your description of ‘lost in the halls of sixth grade/every door looking like the one before it.’ On reading, I could almost feel that awful, sweaty panic.

    Yikes.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:01:00

    Thanks, Kristen. I was feeling the panic as I was writing it. It was my first day, and I had enough trouble opening those damn lockers!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Will Entrekin |Edit This
    2009-10-27 05:45:48

    I transferred high schools as a junior and literally needed a map to get around, so I know where you’re coming from (ha!). Nice post. My old Blackberry changed my game with its Google Maps and GPS built in; I followed it straight to the Nervous Breakdown Literary Experience in New York a couple months ago. I recently upgraded to an iPhone and use it much the same way. It’s pretty genius what things can do nowadays.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:02:15

    It really is amazing just how much we take for granted. Like how I never carry around cash anymore and pay for everything with a credit or a debit card. Stuff of science fiction, now science fact.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
    2009-10-27 10:15:08

    Nice piece!
    I’m lucky that I am one of those people who has an ‘organic compass’ in my brain. For some reason I get a feel for new places really quickly and can find my way around easily. I think it’s because the city that I grew up in was entirely flat, with no visible landmarks, and so I learnt direction as early as I learnt to read. I think there is something in this, because my friends who grew up in the same place also have a really good sense of direction….
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:19:12

    Thanks, Zara. Yes, you are super-duper lucky. I’ve always had trouble, ever since I was young. I grew up in the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea, and there, too, I was constantly getting lost. Which I guess shows you that my brain was directionally-challenged in either language.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
    2009-10-27 10:37:34

    Sung,
    My GPS system is my best friend too. Her name is Gerty. She never yells at me when I make a mistake. She calmly asks me to make a safe U-turn whenever possible. My husband yells at me. My children yell at me. Gerty is my friend.
    I didn’t know there was a name for what I have. Topographagnosia sounds kind of nice, if no one told you what it meant. You’d say “I have topographognosia,” and people would say “wow, that’s so cool. So you can read a book in an hour? You can see in the dark like a bat? You remember everything anyone has ever said to you?” And you would say, “Why, yes, I can do all those things, because I have topographagnosia!”
    Who would know?

    (My mother had the worse kind. She got lost in my house every day. It was a normal house. Still, she’d be carrying a roast chicken into the bedroom. Like that.)
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:26:25

    I honestly don’t know what I’d do without my Garmin (actually, I do know — I’d be lost). I don’t even have a souped-up model, just the basic one that tells you to turn left or turn right. I use the British lady for the voice — the American one sounds a little too chipper, while the British accent has that heft of authority.

    You are entirely too funny, by the way. I need to visit this Internet home of ours more often.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:48:04

    The cool thing is with these GPS things is that you can download Europe, for instance, and it knows how to get around weird tiny streets in Sicily. We actually did this. Gerty took on a British accent for Italy, though. It was weird hearing her with two accents. ( I suspect she might be an actress in her day job.)
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    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:13:52

    We loaded up my wife’s Garmin (the one that speaks the streets) with a Euro-map for our trip to Paris and Rome this spring, but we never ended up using it. Once I saw how narrow those streets were, I knew I’d be better off taking the train.

    My first GPS was a TomTom, and that one, you could download all sorts of different voices. My favorite was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proclaimed whenever we started on a trip: “You’re going somewhere — but you’ll be back.”

    Reply here

    Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
    2009-10-27 12:01:57

    i have some friends with a garmin. drives me crazy. they’ll pick me up and set a course for pasadena. i’m like, pasadena’s twenty minutes away and i go there every day, we don’t need a computer. but still they set it up. then the whole time it’s beeping and they’re looking at it and asking each other if they’ve missed a turn. i’m like, there are no turns, you just stay on the 110 until you’re in pasadena. then they sigh like i’m an asshole. drives me fuckin nuts.

    but that’s my friends, not the device itself. anyway i’m glad you’re not lost anymore.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:28:24

    Hey Ben,

    I’m afraid I’d drive you batty, too, because I use it for everything — even when I go to the grocery store, which is less than a mile from my house and I could get there blindfolded. It’s just become a part of my driving experience, no different than cranking on the engine. I feel safe with it on. It really is like this thing that’s always watching over me. It’s entirely possible that I may be insane…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Simon Smithson |Edit This
    2009-10-27 13:38:46

    There’s something so comforting about knowing that you’ve got one area of your life covered. It’s like ‘Getting lost? Cross that one off the list!’

    Not that it’s a to-do list, or anything.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:30:33

    For a little while when I was in college, I went a little crazy with lists. I made one every day, and the first thing on the list was, “Read the list,” and the last one was, “Go to sleep.” What can I say — I got addicted to the checkmarks.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Simon Smithson |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:42:12

    Oh my God! Me too! I even used to write things I’d just done on the list, so I could cross them off.
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    Reply here

    Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
    2009-10-27 14:56:17

    I liked this piece, Sung, because it’s a different take on personal tech — not the “I love the X because it’s sooo cool,” but “I love the X because it does shit I really, really need done.”

    I love GPS units too. I’ve had built-in ones in my last two cars, and each one has saved my ass more than once. I have a pretty good built in compass, yes, but once I exited I80 in NJ and found myself down in the middle of pot-hole refinery land and said Oh Shit! and then remembered that’s what the GPS is for, and it got me right out there and to Brooklyn.

    I was married to a woman who could get lost in a closet. One time when I was in Hawai’i she called me on my cellphone and said, “How do I get to my brother’s house?” So even if I don’t have topographagnosia I understand something about what it’s like.

    I started, but never finished, a little story about a man, a woman, a vocal GPS unit, and a series of arguments. I thought it would go somewhere but I couldn’t. I’ll try again, or as the voice I used to call “Veronica” would say, “Please make a legal U-turn, if possible.”
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:18:24

    I currently drive a Hyundai Elantra (irony: I never owned a Korean-made car until I became a US citizen), but I almost bought a Honda Fit. The problem was that in order to get vehicle stability control, you had to also buy the nav system, which added something like $2500 to the final cost. Maybe with my next car I’ll get a built-in — I’m sure they integrate with the car a whole lot better.

    GPSes are so cheap nowadays — you can find one for like $50 on sale. It surprises me that not everyone has one.

    You should totally finish that story! I don’t think there’s been a lot of GPS fiction…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
    2009-10-27 21:28:27

    I get lost going places I’ve been hundreds of time before. How this happens is a complete mystery. But I kind of enjoy it. Everyone needs a good detour from time to time.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:19:28

    One time a friend and I drove to a Staples for some sale, and it turned out to be OfficeMax. So even when I know where I’m going, I can still be wrong.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by David S. Wills |Edit This
    2009-10-27 22:59:29

    My girlfriend – whom is coincidentally also a Korean-American – suffers from the same thing. She will get lost going from her house to mine, or from one shop to anther, even in places she’s been hundreds of times before. It’s strange. I, on the other hand, have a weird in-built compass and can literally walk into a city I’ve never seen before, having taken one look at a map, and find the exact building I need to find… It’s my lame superpower.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:22:33

    That site for topographagnosia has a test you can take to see how bad you have it. It’s 90 minutes, but I think I’ll take it this weekend. You can be either “Disorientation” or “Control” – so both you and your girlfriend can take it! I will, of course, be in the former group.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Colin Gittens |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:46:35

    I enjoyed this, Sung. Good thing the Facebook positioning system directed me to it!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 03:53:50

    Hey Colin,

    Glad you enjoyed it, by way of the FPS! Which is evil, by the way. They don’t call it Wastebook for nothing.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mary |Edit This
    2009-10-28 06:16:03

    Yes, exactly! Since moving to the Baltimore-DC area, I have come to truly love my GPS. I don’t know if I could even be gainfully employed without it. Well, I would’ve made do somehow, but this area is chock full with places I simply don’t drive on a regular basis but need to get to now and then, and a GPS is perfect for such occasions. Especially when it comes to driving in downtown Baltimore or DC, there are tons of opportunities to miss your turn, and that automatic recalculation is priceless. *sigh* I get all misty eyed…
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-10-28 14:27:55

    I visited Baltimore for the first time on the same trip (did a reading at the B&N outside Johns Hopkins). One of these days, I’ll have to go down and catch an Orioles game at Camden Yards…

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