Friday, May 2, 2014

The Rules

Statistics always have a weird, personalized hold on me. If I read that couples who have profile pictures together are more likely to still be together six months down the road than those who have those pesky solo photos (as if they exist outside of their relationship, or some malarkey like that), I start worrying about my own Facebook status. I take the vaguest, most half-baked graduate student science as gospel, and I fret.

On the other hand, when someone tells me, "This is the way something is done" in a tone that carries any authoritative weight whatsoever, I get all bristly and contrarian. I have to go to university? Pardon me, but I think I'll become a very successful writer (I became a waitress, middle-level successful, and eventually returned to finish my undergrad). I have to work at a desk job? I'll just be over here, semi-retired at the age of twenty-nine, working on a novel and freelancing from the comfort of my living room (I eventually caved and got a Real Job™, because it turns out I really enjoy having a paycheque). I have to live in a house I own with my husband? Excuse me while I research housing co-ops and think critically about what kind of self-made family we can create with other consenting adults who might also want to live with us and our freaky hippie babies (stay tuned to see how that one turns out!).

On the other other hand, as I discovered while working with a really terrific therapist last fall, it bugs my shit out when people don't follow their job descriptions. I'm not talking about Mom = the person who feeds the kids and dusts the lamps; when professional people behave badly, it burns my chops in a way that I can barely tolerate them. I remember a professor I had in university who liked to drop the f-bomb during lectures. Now, I'm no shrinking violet, but being sworn at in a school setting, by the teacher, is usually a pretty clear indicator that things have gone off the rails somewhere. I found it disrespectful, but when I complained, his reaction was basically, "Well, get over it," and he kept doing it. My expectation that his role meant that he would behave a certain, predictable way was dashed. This was, of course, enraging.

So, what am I even talking about? I'm talking about rules. How things get to be rules, which rules are important, and which ones can be tossed aside like so much outmoded trash.

Which rules we follow can mean a lot to how we define ourselves. I've never been particularly interested in following the "rules" of living arrangements: dorm to roommates to solo apartment to living with a partner to getting hitched = normal. I lived in a dorm, sure; then I spent eight years bouncing around a student housing co-op with varying degrees of privacy, ranging from sixteen roommates to living alone for three years. It's not super far off-script—I never lived in a tiny house or a yurt—but the time I spent living with a lot of other people was incredibly valuable. I got over apologizing for missing the "normal" experience, and reveling in the one I actually had.

But as I grow up (ugh, which is taking forever), I find myself becoming more and more aware of this unwritten code people seem to be following. Maybe it's because, in the past, I wasn't exposing myself to the type of people who would be willing or able to take on, say, being a homeowner, or graduate school; now, they've infested my friend group. Like overachieving termites! Boring holes into my soul.

Except they're not even overachievers: they're just people who got their shit together. How? ("Probably by following the rules," a dark part of me just muttered snidely.) I have to admit, it seems like the folks who did their degrees in four years, married the people they were dating when they were twenty-one, and joined some sort of recreational sports league seem to be doing okay. They seem happy—sometimes in a one-dimensional way that makes me wonder if they stay in their jobs, not because they're really happy there, but because it's easier than looking for a new one...but happy.

But then I look on the other side of that white picket fence, and I see all the friends I have who didn't follow the rules: the people turned out to be queer, or who took until their 30s to finish their degree, or left academia entirely to become, I don't know, a fetish model or a fashion vlogger. The people who live in share houses, the folks who flung themselves away from their desk jobs or retail drudgery in favour of following their passion. The people who leaped and knew that, somehow, a net would form. They seem happy, too—albeit often stressed about money and more prone to stomping off from the potluck in a huff over a comment about gender identity...but happy.

Straddling that white picket fence is exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. There's a part of me, deeply ingrained, that wants to follow the rules to the letter; it seems like, from the outside, the people who do that seem to end up with the babies, the houses, and the pension plans. By following the rules, they knew exactly how to plan a wedding or start a book club, and things seem easy. And then, on the other side of the fence, there are the people who are figuring out as they go, saying, "Fuck your rules," and meaning it. And part of me is drawn to that: those people seem to have deeply soulful friendships and don't seem burdened by all the things they've acquired. They make their own clothes and they buy glitter in bulk, and things seem fun.

I guess the biggest work of growing up is figuring out exactly which rules matter to you—the house, the job, the travel, the sex, the family, the sexual and gender identity, the stuff you buy, and the money you give away. The importance of creativity, and what you're willing to sacrifice to maintain it. If you're a lone wolf or a party girl, and if you buy into the stereotypes of who those people are. I'm still working on all of this, and it's really goddamn hard to figure out. But talking about it is one rule I'm happy to break—pretending I'm not feeling something when I am has never been my strong suit, even if the world doesn't always like that. Some rules, they say, are made to be broken.

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