(Mis)Reading the Map

Laura and the family just returned from a 9-day modified staycation — she’ll call it a drive-cation — which included five days in Maryland/DC and then three days in, or at, or down, the Jersey Shore.  They made the trip because Laura’s sister Linda and her husband Richard and their fantastic kids were coming east from L.A. to see DC and go down the shore, so Laura and the family decided it was a perfect opportunity to glom on to their plans and go along for the ride.


Laura’s friends and loyal brant readers know that one of the (many) things Laura hates more than carrots is flying, so taking a drive-cation is one of her favorite things to do.  She packs up the car, sets Ben up with DVDs and her Nano in the backseat, makes sure the dog is in the crate with a big fluffy $2 faux bone from Petco, and prints out a whole stack of mostly wrong Mapquest maps and sets out across the great frontier that is her road trip thinking her deep thoughts.  This time was no different — the DVDs, the Nano, the dog, the faux fluffy bones, the deep thoughts — except for the fact that there were no Mapquest maps.

There was a GPS instead.

Yes, Laura got a GPS for her birthday and this was the first time she was going on a real road trip with something other than a stack of printouts and her lousy sense of direction.  She ended up using the station wagon that has a Stonehenge-type-built in GPS with a cumbersome and annoying GPS already it in (the car that Brendan always drives) and left her brand new stylus-pen touchscreen no-frills unit at home), and she ended up having a completely ridiculous and infantile meltdown somewhere off I-84 because she couldn’t figure out how to communicate to the GPS that she wanted it to calculate her route from Newton to Maryland via the Tappan Zee Bridge, not the George Washington Bridge — anything to avoid the traffic sinkhole that is I-95– but aside from that, and aside from the fact that it literally took almost 15 minutes to set the fucking thing every time they went somewhere, it was an amazing way to travel.

Laura’s actually been reading a lot lately about how navigational systems in cars are changing  the way people relate to each other — she’s thinking specifically of an article that ran recently in the NYTs about how couples are fighting less because they’re not getting lost as much (she can’t find the link but will add it when she does)– and she’d like to add, just for the record, that she thinks this is absolutely ridiculous.  Couples aren’t fighting less because they have GPS units in their cars — they’re just fighting differently.

Because the GPS instructions are so incredibly confusing and annoying.  Every time they set the GPS on this trip, the monitor became a kind of test — how to read the instructions, or more exactly, how to interpret the instructions the GPS was giving them.  Did the yellow arrow on the upper left corner of the screen pointing to the right mean take a right right now? Or did it mean, take a right later.  In a little while.  You know, when you feel like it.  Did the thick blue highlighted road mean the road they were on, right now? Or the road they were trying to get to next, in 04. miles, the way it said in the upper right corner of the screen?

Their differing interpretations — sometimes vastly differing interpretations — of the instructions on the GPS — reminded Laura of why she got such shitty scores on her SATs (and GREs): because she could never really understand the questions.  I mean, she understood the questions, sort of, but after reading the question the first time she would start to have questions about the question:  did the question mean this? or did the question mean that?  did it mean this AND that? or THAT and THIS? Half the time she got so confused about the question itself that she had no idea what to pick for an answer.  Which is exactly what happened while driving.  Half the time she would get so confused about what the GPS was telling her that she would end up getting lost anyway.

Parsing out the directions was, though, a small part of an otherwise great trip.  A trip during which lots of small thoughts occurred to Laura:

  • After her 10 1/2 hour drive from Newton to Maryland two Saturdays ago in her black Volvo XC wagon, Laura realized that hers was the only wagon without a  Thule storage unit on the roof.
  • After walking the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ, she realized she was the only 47-year-old-mom without a tattoo.
  • After days of super-high humidity, Laura realized her hair had gone horizontal and there was nothing she could do about it.
  • After eating crap for 9 days, she realized she was sick of eating crap and wanted to stop.
  • After paying almost $45 to get into the Spy Museum in DC (not including parking) and paying over $50 for lunch at the otherwise free National Portrait Gallery, Laura realized sightseeing in the Nation’s capital wasn’t as cheap as it was back in 1972 when she went with her parents.
  • It had been a pretty long time since Laura had taken a family-type vacation — the past few years had been kind of complicated and difficult for a variety of reasons and she’d had to forgo this type of thing.  But after a terrific 9-days, a few bigger thoughts occurred to Laura, too, including realizing that:
  • Life is short and kids grow up all too quickly and even though three extra nights at a hotel feels like it’s going to almost break the bank she should break the bank anyway because her niece will never again be 14 and eavesdropping on her son and nephew talking about skateboarding and school is priceless.
  • Memories of family vacations, especially good ones, have a very long half-life for children, which is why she should do anything to take them.
  • Life is good, and she is lucky, no matter how she mis-reads the map or mis-interprets the directions.

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