Second nature can be tricky

Posted 4/29/21

Second nature can be deceiving. Second nature fooled me Sunday on a return trip from Upstate NY. I've made the drive 10 to 15 times a year ever since we moved to Rhode Island in 1968. I haven't done the math, but that's hundreds of times. In the years

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Second nature can be tricky


Second nature can be deceiving.

Second nature fooled me Sunday on a return trip from Upstate NY. I’ve made the drive 10 to 15 times a year ever since we moved to Rhode Island in 1968. I haven’t done the math, but that’s hundreds of times. In the years before Route 146 was made into a divided highway, we’d make the connection with the Massachusetts Turnpike at Auburn or Sturbridge. The Sturbridge route, which took us though villages in Connecticut, was always the more interesting. Both routes were subject to traffic and delays and we considered anything under five hours a good run.

Today, 146 is the preferred route. There can be traffic snags along the way. Yet with the elimination of toll booths, the omnipresence of gantries festooned with cameras and an overall reduction in traffic with the pandemic, a trip of four hours has become the norm.

But I’m drifting from the shortcoming of second nature.

The very benefit of second nature can be its undoing. There’s no conscious decision of doing some of the simplest of things – grabbing a towel after stepping out of the shower, turning on the morning coffee, kissing your spouse on the way out the door – you just do them. I don’t think of them as routines, although I suppose they can be labeled that. Rather, I think of it as part of our chemistry, like the way most of us start a conversation with “how are you” even when there are more pressing questions on our mind. We’re disarmed when our inquiry is seriously entertained and we get an earful of trials and tribulations down to a description of a bout of vomiting. Usually by that point the torrent of maladies unloosed overshadows whatever we thought important and we’re happy to end the conversation.

In fact, this can be handy tactic when you get an unsolicited sales call. Usually before the sales pitch, the caller asks “how are you doing,” to which without thinking (that second nature, again) you reply “fine” and in turn ask the same question. The caller then replies, “thanks for asking,” which is designed to make you feel appreciated. Anyway, if instead you unburdened all your troubles, I guarantee you the unwanted sales call would end abruptly.

The trip to and from Upstate NY is so familiar that once on Route 20, driving west through farmlands and hamlets, the derelict barns and rusted tractors alongside the road or the smartly kept properties with carefully tended gardens and freshly painted houses are reassuring guideposts. If they aren’t there, you feel weirdly out of place. The drive is no longer second nature.

I’m not suggesting that driving should become second nature.

Yet that’s what happened to me.

The drive home had been uneventful. There was a smattering of rain as I joined the NY Thruway east of Albany that only increased as I crossed over into Massachusetts into the Berkshires. I was listening to Joseph Ellis’s “American Creation, Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,” a dry read on events leading to the founding of this country that kept me mentally engaged while letting the car do its thing on cruise control. Traffic picked up after Sturbridge, as did the rain. Visibility dropped and I paid greater attention to the vehicles around me. I know this road. I didn’t look for signs, second nature would guide me.

Only it didn’t.

For a first in all these years, I drove past the exit to connect with 146. Now I had no choice but to carry on in the direction of Boston. I cursed myself. The next exit connected me with 495. From there it was another 25 miles to Interstate 95, before heading back to Rhode Island.

Remarkably, by the time I got home, I had completed the trip in four hours and 15 minutes. But the lesson gained was worth the extra time – don’t depend on second nature, especially when driving.


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