Traveling with Rhoda

  Jerome Shea       April 19, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Recently, just in time for our trip to Taos and then our trip to El Paso, Diana bought a GPS (Global Positioning System), an electronic device for getting you from point A to point B with the least fuss, the best mileage, or something. Satellites are involved, that much I know, causing road maps to pop up on a little screen that you suction-cup to your windshield, a screen that also displays your speed and computes your time of arrival. Arrant frippery, I calls it. My own “GPS” when I am taking long trips in the Little Red Beast is an old roadmap folded to the appropriate section and fastened to a clipboard. But the rest of the world seems to be excited about these devices, just as they are about all things electronic. And for me it was worth the money if only for the hilarity of it. Rhoda is a real hoot.

Rhoda is the woman who evidently lives inside the little screen, the woman who occasionally talks to us. I don’t know if that is her real name, but it seemed a very apt pun, so that is what we dubbed her. I hope someday to get up the nerve to ask her for a nice 5 x 7 glossy (if it doesn’t put Diana’s nose out of joint). Rhoda belongs to the same electronic sorority as does Inga, who lives in this computer I am staring at—or used to—and the other young women who tell you over the phone to “Press 1 for English; press 2 for Spanish; press 3 for Swahili,” and so forth. Oh, and to tell you how all-fired important your call is to the caring folks at Pettifogger Industries. Always it’s women because, I’m told, they sound less threatening and more nurturing than men. And they seem to get more interactive every year (“Did you say ‘some Day-Glo’ or ‘lumbago’? Are you ill, Mr. Shee-a?”). Scary.

But back to Rhoda. She is remarkably even tempered. Compared to your mother-in-law in the back seat, she is a real sweetheart. Should you deviate from the route she has prescribed for you (she is programmed with maps that can be updated for a fee), she will tell you to “MAKE A U-TURN, MAKE U-TURN,” but then quickly regain her composure (but was that sigh that I heard?) and say, “Recalculating,” determined to reroute you to your destination despite your stupidity or pig-headedness.

Many place names and street names here in the Southwest are Spanish, and poor Rhoda does make a hash of them. For example, in Spanish, the double “l” is pronounced like a long “e,” so that the town north of us is pronounced not “Bernalillo,” as it looks to Anglo eyes, but “BernalEEo.” La Orilla, a road I often use to get into my neighborhood, is “La OrEEa” (the accent in Spanish is almost always on the penultimate syllable). It doesn’t rhyme with “gorilla.” But Rhoda mangles on, a stranger in a strange land. She did outdo herself, however, when she identified Taylor Ranch Dr. as “Taylor Ranch Doctor”! I did not make that up. And sometimes she is just flat wrong, making you wonder if perhaps the Flying Dutchman was relying on a GPS—still is, for that matter.

As to interactive programs, I did stumble upon something useful and interesting last month. I was trying to deal with the Federal Express people (on an 800 number, of course). I had missed the deliveryman and was trying to find out if I could just go to their local warehouse and pick up the package (which had to be signed for). The voice—shall we call her Federica?—patiently tried to help me, but I got all screwed up and finally lost my temper. “I don’t want a package pickup, I want to pick up a package!” I shrieked (unaware of my nifty chiasmus). Not programmed to deal with a nut job like me, she immediately said, “I’ll transfer your call, sir.” And there, in a trice, was a live human being! There’s hope.

Sadly, I haven’t heard from Inga in some time. Maybe the inside of this old iMac just got to be too low-rent for her. I can believe that’s what may have happened if all the tortured ticks and groans it emits now in addressing the simplest task is any indication, and when silly notes like “Whan in doot, reboot!!” are affixed to the outside of her hovel. Anyway, back when we were both younger and some application failed to engage, Inga would murmur, in the sultriest Scandinavian voice you can imagine, “Application failed; eet’s naut ma faouolt.” (Forgive my crude rendering, but she really did get about four syllables out of “fault.”) I wanted to snap, “Well, it sure as blazes is naut MA faouolt, Inga!” But I was half in love with her from the get-go, this supermodel whose chosen demeanor was a pout, a moue.

Bless you Rhoda, Inga, and the rest, you who brighten my life. I wonder if these disembodied gals all hang out together after work. I’d like to buy them a round of mai tais.

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