You’ve Gotta Know the Rules Before You Break ’Em
My husband had an astrological reading today with a gal who told him he had the most fantastic chart she’d ever seen. Yippee – now someone else has confirmed he’s a brilliant musician, performer, writer, and artist, so maybe he’ll believe me when I tell him the same things. As we are married, she also asked about me (birthdate, time, location, etc.). I was overhearing this from the next room, mind you. Then she asked him if I was a perfectionist and set in my ways. He hemmed and hawed a little – I don’t think either of us really see me that way. But when he mentioned that I was an author and editor, she said, “And an editor must have things just so.” Ah – turns out she is correct.
As the day wore on, it became a bit more apparent to me that even as I’ve always seen myself as a devil-may-care rebel, the fact is that I care quite a bit about how quite a number of things are done. I don’t know that I’d call it perfectionism – but I do seem to have an inclination toward having certain areas of life just so. First and foremost, I care about correct grammar. Even though I’ve been moving toward living more in the spirit of “Done Is Better than Perfect,” I’ll usually go back and reread these blog posts a couple times – and when I notice a typo, I can’t jump on the EDIT button fast enough.
Then tonight, I heard a speaker at the Arizona Marketing Association monthly meeting. She was very good – talking about how various generations have different values and ways of communicating, so smart marketers will take this into consideration when creating campaigns to reach members of each age group. And even while I was hearing her message and learning from it, in the back of my mind, I was aware that she was on the stage in a sleeveless red top. Somewhere in my past, one of my mentors told me that professional women ALWAYS wear an outer garment (jacket, sweater, overshirt, etc.). To omit this – to be in her shirtsleeves – is the height of unprofessional presentation. Was this speaker in any way unprofessional? Not at all. And yet, this rule I’d encountered all those years ago came around to interrupt my experience tonight.
Back in the days when my husband worked in commercial plumbing, he left the house by 4:15 a.m. to get to the jobsite. There was no one on the roads at the time, so he occasionally ran a red light if it was taking forever to change and there were no other cars to be seen. I bristled at the idea – and yet I will walk straight across almost any road against a red light if there are no cars in sight. How is that different? Am I a rulebreaker when it suits my needs – the rules apply to everyone else but not to me?
A couple months ago, I mentioned my friend Mike – Tony’s best friend from childhood. Mike was the slobbiest of slobs – and I found out later that Tony, my son’s birthfather, was the exact opposite. When given the opportunity to keep his own house the way he preferred it, Tony kept his place immaculate. Now that I’m traveling back down Memory Lane, I recall that Tony used to nag Mike whenever Mike would dump out the garbage from his car (mostly fast food wrappers) onto the side streets near our apartment in Jersey City. To his credit, he never added enough trash to make a visible difference, as every street in Jersey City was a litterbug’s haven. Nevertheless, it was not the behavior of a mature adult. And every time, Tony would say to him something along the lines of, “Hey, why don’t you just put that stuff in the trash can? Don’t lower yourself to live like these animals.”’
Imagine my surprise one day, then, when I saw Tony toss all of the junk mail from our mailbox onto the floor in the vestibule of our 3-story walkup apartment. A case of “do as I say, not as I do”?
“What the hell are you doing?” I let him have it. “You yelled at Mike, and now you’re doing the exact same thing. You’re no better than the rest of the degenerates in our neighborhood.” I don’t remember his response, but I never saw him do it again.
A few weeks later, Tony’s mom and dad were in town visiting. They’d rented a car, and we were heading down to Atlantic City for the weekend, when suddenly we saw a Pepsi can go flying out the front window. I could not believe my eyes. Tony’s dad had just chucked a soda can out the driver window of our moving vehicle. “Hey!” Tony yelled at his dad. “We have to live here after you go home, you know!” I remember being pretty surprised to watch my reformed little rulebreaker calling out his own dad.
My dad wouldn’t have thrown a gum wrapper on the ground – and you know where the apple falls. But still, I was determined not to bend to his every whim. Given my very strict Catholic upbringing in a house where all my dad had to do was look at us for us to know we were in deep trouble, I probably didn’t have to push the envelope too far to rebel. Sneaking 11 p.m. phone calls to my best friend in junior high might have been the extent of it. I never ditched school. Never got drunk. Never had purple hair. Never got any body part other than my ears pierced. Still have yet to get my tattoo.
What, exactly, does a rebel look like anyway? Are you really pushing any boundaries when you and all your friends are clones of one another? There are lots of ways to break the rules, though. I did it in the most massive way possible by getting pregnant without the benefit (or imprisonment?) of marriage. And I was in no hurry to share that news with my every-so-strict father.
Going against the tide isn’t always a bad thing, though. I’ve been in more than one circumstance in my life where a person was having a public meltdown, and all anybody else did was stare at them. Once, a friend was giving a speech during a Toastmasters meeting, when he suddenly seemed to be choking because his mouth had gone so dry. He asked for someone to help him out with a sip of water. This was the summer in the desert, so nearly everyone in the room had a water bottle sitting on their desk, and yet not one person from the front row offered this guy a drink. I leapt from the back row to hand him my water bottle. Really, though? No one could be bothered to let another person who was in obvious distress drink from their bottle? Because rules or decorum said so? Or was it something else?
A similar thing happened when a woman a few rows in front of me broke down hysterically during a weekend workshop. Though the subject of the workshop was some aspect of marketing, this particular presentation was touching on personal development – and something in the speaker’s talk touched off a strong emotional reaction in the woman. Everyone around her stared, horrified, as she sobbed uncontrollably. Yet no one moved a muscle to help her. I got up from my seat, went to her, put my arm around her, and offered her a tissue. When it was clear she wasn’t going to get herself together all that quickly, I guided her out to the vestibule. Why do we freeze when we see strangers go into distress? For whatever reason, they’re breaching the rules of decorum, so we must avert our eyes and dissociate from them?
Of course, I’m happy enough not to follow the crowd in more pedestrian avenues, too. For example, I’m thrilled when I don’t love a movie or TV show (the Roseanne reboot comes to mind) that everyone else seems gaga for. And, in the reverse, I feel like I must apologize or make excuses for liking some mainstream things, like Pink and the occasional Katy Perry song. And I consider most romantic comedies guilty pleasures.
They say that rules are made to be broken. I suppose it depends on the rule – and the situation. But I’d definitely agree with one maxim: You’ve gotta know the rules before you break ’em.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.