Auto-pilot

I remember locking up my bicycle once outside the barbershop on the Ferdinand Bolstraat, back when Heineken still had its brewery across the street.  As far as the tourists are concerned Heineken is still there, even though the greater part of the plant – the actual production –  has been moved elsewhere and what remains is nothing more than a tourist attraction. (A free mug of beer if you visit on your birthday!)  As for the barbershop, I haven’t looked for it of late – I have my hair cut elsewhere – but at the time it was one of those places frequented by working class men looking for a quick, inexpensive cut.  There were six chairs, I believe, and it wasn’t uncommon to find twice that many men sitting around the table in the back, smoking and waiting their turn.

Just as I headed in the door I was stopped short by the thought, “What am I doing?  I don’t need a haircut.  Why am I here?”

In fact, I never intended to go to the barbershop that morning.  I had been heading across town on my bike to a completely different appointment, absent-mindedly thinking about other things, when I arrived at an intersection which my subconscious knew I generally only encountered when I was going for a haircut.  I switched to auto-pilot without noticing and ended up at the barbershop.

I’m sure most of us have had the experience of driving a familiar route and “waking up” near the end of it wondering if we actually paid any attention at all to the traffic lights along the way.  Last week I experienced the opposite of that effect: in serious conversation with my daughter I found myself stopped at a green light, the driver behind me honking impatiently at the idiot in front of him.  I believe I must have stopped when it was green to begin with.  He soon passed me, in a hurry, and when I gave a friendly wave he returned the politeness with an irritated jerk of the hand and a dirty look.

About fifteen years ago a friend who is almost that much older than me told me she felt like her life was on auto-pilot.  At the time I didn’t quite understand what she meant even though she explained it had to do with the changeless nature of her relationships and career at the time.  She had adolescent children and in the interest of family stability and job security any changes in direction were on hold.  I thought back on my own youth and concluded she was wrong.  But then, we did end up living in an abandoned feed store along Highway 1 in Florida for a year.  We weren’t your typical family.

But now I understand.  I’ve been itching for significant change for the past five years or so and the one time in that period I dared take the leap, I fell flat.  Ouch!  Not just for me and Renata, but for our own adolescent children as well.  Some day they’ll be writing stories about when, because of their father’s crazy life decisions, they went halfway around the world and came back again, ending up living in an octogenarian’s attic.

I’ve come to appreciate the value of auto-pilot.  And yet…..   There’s been a long pause between that last sentence and this one.  Do I really mean it?  No, not entirely.  I still believe there is something to be said for risk-taking, for adventure, for pushing the edges of life’s envelope even when one is not compelled to.

A time for everything, I guess.

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