Think you're a rational adult? Try disagreeing with your GPS en route to a strange airport.
Last month, at the end of a vacation that began in New Zealand and ended in Hawaii, I was feeling pretty cocky. I'd negotiated the deadly motorways of Auckland at rush hour. I'd mastered left-hand roundabouts, kept up with the speed-freak locals on narrow, twisty by-ways, and blithely wound my way up and down the Southern Alps via guardrail-free hairpin turns. And all in a borrowed car with a quirky electric system that caused headlamp failure during rainstorms. I was Da Wo-Man: calm, cool and confident on the freeways of life.
Then came the Alamo. More precisely, the Alamo Rental Car Incident, in which I was reduced to a state of gibbering indecisiveness by the lady who lives in my GPS, and I realized that the ghosts of the past still haunted the recesses of my apparently rational mind.
Anxiety in Honolulu
It happened when I had to return my rental car to Alamo's Nimitz Highway office near the Honolulu airport prior to boarding my flight to the mainland. I've spent some time in Honolulu and I more or less know my way around, despite the island's disorienting tilt off a north-south axis, which is undoubtedly why its residents give directions in terms of "mauka" (towards the mountains) and "makai" (towards the ocean) instead of east and west. In theory, I could have found my way back to the drop-off location by dead reckoning.
But, having recently acquired an iPhone 5, I was determined to use its maps app and internal GPS to prove to myself that I was not descending into technological senescence.
So I asked Siri to find me the Alamo airport office, set it as my destination and cheerfully swung into the fast lane on the H-1 freeway without my usual anxiety about accidentally diverting myself onto H201 and ending up in an industrial park in the interior of Oahu.
Things fall apart
After all, the reassuringly assertive voice of the GPS Lady, who seemed to speak more slowly than Siri, had already guided me out of a maze of residential streets in Hawaii Kai onto the freeway. She'd take care of me all the way, right?
Wrong. I'd travelled only a few miles when things started to fall apart. Here's the cockpit voice recorder version.
GPS Lady (calm, decisive): In two miles, take Exit 25B, Kapiolani Boulevard.
Me (surprised): That can't be right. I'll end up in Waikiki.
I continue driving in the fast lane, puzzled but not particularly alarmed.
GPS Lady (insisting): In 500 yards, take Exit 25B, Kapiolani Boulevard.
Me (incredulous): You've got to be kidding.
Butterflies of panic
I edge over to the center lane. Maybe she knows something I don't. I'm trying to visualize the spot on the Nimitz Highway where I picked up the car, but the voice from my iPhone—which has slid off the passenger seat onto the floor— distracts me.
GPS Lady (firmly): Take 25B, Kapiolani Boulevard. (I think she added "Now!" but maybe that's just my imagination.)
Me (rebelling): No way. That cannot be right.
I feel the butterflies of panic awakening in my tummy as I speed past the designated exit. Their fluttering increases as I pass each successive exit that GPS Lady exhorts me to take so she can get me turned around and headed toward whatever mysterious location in Waikiki she's chosen for me. But I'm in the middle of a multi-lane stampede of cars and I can't reach the phone to shut her up.
By now my breathing is shallow and my lower back is rigid with tension and my mind is shutting down. I have defied She Who Must Be Obeyed Because She Possesses Infinite Data and I am experiencing my habitual response to authority figures who I suspect don't know what the hell they are talking about.
Doctors, lawyers, policemen, IRS toadies— you name it, I automatically defer to their purported superior wisdom and/or power. I appease, grovel and apologize for taking up their valuable time without challenging their obvious fallibility.
Just as I do with GPS Lady. "I'm sorry," I say, "but I have to do this my way." Yes, I actually apologize to a disembodied electronic entity.
Finally, stuck in traffic at the airport terminal, where I definitely should not be, I dive to the floor, retrieve my phone, stop GPS Lady's insistent nattering and come to my senses.
My risk-averse parents
Alas, this episode is a replay not only of my reaction to external experts but also to the little cautionary voices in my head, the templates for which were laid down by my risk-averse parents, who advised me to get a Ph.D. rather than join the Peace Corps and to learn secretarial skills rather than move to New York to work for a magazine. I obeyed them because they loved me and wished the best for me, and I didn't want to disappoint them.
GPS Lady, however, doesn't love me, nor does she appear to have my best interests in mind. Silencing her is quick and easy.
Not so with the faint echo of parental admonishments recorded in my neural circuitry. For better or worse, we all harbor those echoes. They've been burned into our brains and dictate our default mode, to which we revert without a moment's notice. To wit:
Once I squelched my phone and regained my faculties, I easily found my way out of the airport and onto the Nimitz Highway by using my visual memory and reading road signs. While I did accidentally pass the Alamo office, I immediately executed a daring and probably illegal U-turn, pulled into the rental return lane feeling quite satisfied with myself and handed the car over to a large and friendly uniformed attendant.
To whom I apologized for failing to top up the gas.♦
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