Behind the Wheel

GPS device's commands can apply off-road, too

A GPS device's insistent commands might be tiresome, but are you paying attention?
A GPS device's insistent commands might be tiresome, but are you paying attention? (Chris O'meara/associated Press)
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The synthetic "voice" of the car's GPS device penetrates the small confines of his midlife-crisis Mustang convertible. Because we are doing more roaming than arriving, the monotone female voice interrupts with annoying frequency. Yet we can't bring ourselves to turn it off . . . or surely we'll be lost. This all-knowing, godlike guidance system comforts us and alleviates apprehensions as it repeats, after we miss a turn: "recalculating . . . recalculating."

As I quietly ride along in the passenger seat, relieved of the map-reading duties of a navigator, I listen closely to the angst-filled ballads of love and loss in the country-western tunes on the radio. The poetrylike verse of Kris Kristofferson, Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift teaches a clear message -- that all of life includes recalculating . . . recalculating.

A sense of profoundness comes over me, so I break in with a question on an issue of some personal significance. A serious conversation between us is generated. And as I begin to strip myself of normal defenses and move toward revelations about myself, about us, we miss the left turn, and there she is yet again with her neutral but amazingly annoying voice: recalculating . . . recalculating.

We don't care that we missed the turn. I was just hitting that soft moment, and she intrudes as if she is a third person in the car. She has her own personality, persistent but nonjudgmental. She corrects our path but does not render a verdict as to the talent of the driver to follow her instructions. You will not hear, "Hey, stupid! What are you doing that for?" She just lets you know it is time for: recalculating . . . recalculating.

And, of course, the obvious comes to mind in an epiphany-like moment, as if I am Paul and on the road to Damascus. Yes, all of life is recalculating. We have a voice in our head suggesting a right turn -- no, no, wait -- left turn . . . Now wait . . .

We think we're on the right road, and just when we least desire and least expect it, a voice intrudes, and whether we want to or not, it's time to recalculate. And it's this voice inside us, the one you can't turn on and off like a GPS device, where attention must be paid. Otherwise we might miss the pleasure and excitement of hearing: "500 meters to final destination" . . . "400 meters" . . . "300" . . . and in that final Hal-like voice from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the announcement: "Arriving at final destination."

-- Barbara K. Reck, Washington

* * *

My runaway-car adventure began when it refused to go into reverse as I tried to back it out of my townhouse's parking space. "Maybe if I push it out enough to go forward, I can still get to work today," I thought. But "Cutie Cutlass," as I'd nicknamed my '84 Olds, would not budge.

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