Playing by the rules of life

Some rules are unbreakable. Others are optional.

I’m a rule follower. I wait my turn in line without pushing in front of people, I file my taxes by midnight on April 15 and I fill out my official forms in black ink just like it says at the top.

It feels good to follow the rules. I know the universe is in order and everything makes sense.

But there was that one time …

When I flew to India to meet up with my college friend Julie, who was coming over from Liberia, I miscalculated how much one can accomplish during a five-hour layover in New York City.

[Cheesebread recipe swaps out spinach for Southeast’s nettles]

I took the subway into Manhattan to meet a friend for coffee, but the return trip to the airport took longer than I had anticipated. Since our simple plan concocted via international mail in the days before cell phones had me arriving in Bombay first and hanging around at the arrivals gate to wait for Julie to appear, there was no leeway for me to miss my flight.

When I finally got back to the airport, I tore through the terminal, shoved my way to the front of the line at the X-ray machine shouting, “I’m late for my flight,” and made it to the gate before the doors closed.

So much for the rules.

[‘What’s for dessert?’: We want the sweet stuff and we want it now]

Some rules are unbreakable:

• Rules of the road. You gotta follow them. Drive on the right in the United States, on the left in Great Britain and on the shoulder in Canada when there’s another car behind you who wants to go faster than you. Stop at the four-way stop and then take your turn without hesitation. No need to be polite and let everyone else go first. Claim your rights when you have the right of way.

• Rules of play. Every sport has its own rulebook, filled with precise rules to cover every possible contingency. These rules should be considered absolute, and the officials tasked with upholding these rules should be treated as major deities. Woe unto you if you attempt to break the rules of play.

[Wild Shots: Photos of Mother Nature in Alaska]

• Unwritten rules: These are the hardest things for a rule follower to deal with. How are you supposed to know that you should always face forward in an elevator, to avoid staring down the hapless people trapped in that tiny space with you? In an absence of written rules, how can you possibly know how to respond to the question, “Does this make me look fat?” Whether you know about them or not, you break unwritten rules at your social peril.

Then there are some rules that are optional:

• Rules of decorum. We don’t worry so much about these anymore. It’s good to be polite in public, but it’s hard to work up a passion about the behavior of others. I can’t think of the last time I heard someone comment disparagingly on my method of eating asparagus.

P.G. Wodehouse’s characters were always obsessed with this fascinating subject in his Jeeves and Wooster books set in the 1920s and ‘30s. Apparently one’s method of eating asparagus was an indicator of that person’s worth as a human being. Thank goodness we’ve moved past that form of judgment. I’d hate to have to confess my own method of eating asparagus.

• Rules of spelling and grammar. Did I just say that? As a rule follower, I always strive to use proper grammar, and I see no excuse for spelling errors in the age of spell checkers. I routinely send emails that are grammatically correct. But I do acknowledge the lowering of expectations.

In a nod to the changing times, I have relaxed my vigilance when it comes to text messages. Sometimes I leave off the period at the end of my texts — I confess. I do try hard not to judge others when they opt out of the rules of spelling and grammar.

• Official rules for board games. Sure, they say they’re “official,” but nobody’s enforcing these rules, are they? It’s frighteningly easy to revert to “house rules,” a euphemism for “we play the game however we want to in our house.”

So, how about you? Are you a rule follower? There’s a simple test.

When you play the board game Monopoly, do you get money when you land on Free Parking? If you do, you’re no rule follower. It says explicitly in the rules, “A player landing on this space does not receive any money, property or reward of any kind. This is just a ‘free’ resting place.”

Now you know.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life. Her column runs on the last Sunday of every month.

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