Monday, June 21, 2010

Ruled Lines

L.G.C. Smith

This is one of those topics I could write about for a year without exhausting my thoughts and observations. Yes, I think a lot about rules. As a child I was keen to learn and follow rules, whatever they might be. No hitting. No pinching. No biting. Don't touch fire or poo. All embraced and mastered early. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. Got it. Line up quietly and calmly at appropriate times. No pushing or shoving, no pestering the other kids of disrupting the line. I loved that one.

It didn't take me long to notice that different people had different rules, both within families and in society. We moved a lot, and things were different in Billings, Montana as opposed to Ft. Defiance, Arizona, Guam, or the San Francisco suburbs. Family rules were pretty constant, though. When I was six, we had to be in bed by seven thirty, even in the summer because my mother was tired by then. All the other kids in the neighborhood got to play outside until it got dark, and I learned that rules aren't necessarily fair or palatable.

Thus started my internal negotiations with and meditations upon rules. They were generally to be observed, but they should also be questioned, and, at times, as I came to understand, modified, or, gasp, set aside.

For a long time this latter remained mostly a theoretical position. In day to day life, if there was a rule, I generally went along with it and didn't feel too constrained. By high school, I was a quiet, respectful, cooperative teenager. People looked at me and saw a rule-abider par excellence. Especially teachers, the narks who patrolled the school parking lot, and the attendance secretary.

By this time, I had been carefully observing all the kids who didn't follow the rules and what the consequences were in their lives. I'd realized that consequences were not uniformly or fairly meted out. Good kids could get away with all kinds of rule-breaking. Or kids who looked like good kids going on the Eddie Haskell principle. I could get away with breaking rules. So I started experimenting.

Sadly, I didn't venture into anything terribly interesting or rebellious. Drat that goody-goody core. No, my rule breaking mostly involved the relatively tame exercise of leaving the school grounds frequently without permission and writing my own notes to cover my many absences. No drugs (I was asthmatic -- I wasn't going to smoke anything, much less snort anything). No alcohol. No promiscuity. I ran errands and drove around. I did tend to drive fairly far afield. Half Moon Bay. Point Reyes. Sonoma County. Santa Cruz. Still. Not exactly bad ass doings.

It should come as no surprise that as a middle-aged adult, I prefer a quiet, orderly life. I often like rules other people think are stupid. For example, I still like proper lining up. I hate bus stops in Berkeley where people mill about in no discernible order. I am always acutely aware of who was there when I arrived and who came after me. There is a line in my head. I am disgusted by the general surge toward the doors that takes no account of this line.

No lines necessary at Garsdale Station

This is possibly why I like England and Switzerland so much. The English and the Swiss do lines beautifully, governed by the simple fairness of who arrives first. I understand this. People are not embarrassed to form a line, and I like that. It shows a willingness to be courteous and fair. I also understand that other cultures, including my own, are less structured and/or governed by different cultural values. But I will never like haphazard lines, cutting, or random behavior where there should be tidy lines.

Last fall when I was in England, at the end of a day trip to Carlisle, my parents, my cousin, and my sister and her three-year-old were on the platform at the train station waiting to return back to our house in Wensleydale. We were ready to line up, but being tourists, we waited for a few others to start the lines. As soon as they did, we picked one and joined, even though we had my mom with her bum hip, a small child who wished to be held, and twenty minutes to wait. It was a loose line as English lines go, but it was definitely a line.

Carlisle Station

Suddenly a woman appeared who looked like a line-breaker. I couldn't say how but I could feel her intent. My sister and I immediately shifted closer to the person ahead of us. The interloper took a couple of steps toward us on a trajectory that would have landed her two people ahead of us. Without a word, my sister picked up her daughter, thus increasing her bulk, and both she and I angled our bodies to give the line-breaker our backs and present a solid wall she would have to breech should she seek to persist with her unseemly quest. "You will not break lining-up (aka queuing) rules on our watch," we might as well have said.

The woman, probably a tourist or immigrant, or possibly Kate Fox doing research, huffed in disgust and scuttled off to break into someone else's line. Later, on the train, my sister turned in her seat to look back at me. "Did you see that woman?" she sneered. I knew exactly who she meant, and we both cracked up.

Proper people waiting to line up

All of us pick and choose which rules we like and which ones we want enforced, which ones we think are silly, or dangerous, but one thing is clear: rules are not absolute but they are absolutely impossible to avoid. Even those seemingly inviolable childhood rules -- no hitting, no pinching, no biting and so on -- can be tossed safely overboard between consenting adults. Rules are great, even when they suck, because they create conflict. Conflict makes us feel something, think, and act. It makes us grow and change and solve problems (often caused by rules). Rules are hugely productive. Especially for writers.


quantumtea said...

I absolutely LOVED Kate Fox's "Watching the English"! Though she was horribly right about me, even down to how I care for my car...

Was part of a monster queue at an airport a while back, mostly made up of Brits on holiday. It was a loose arrangement, and people who had connecting flights to catch kept getting shuffled forward by the rest of us as everyone wanted them at the front of the line. Very civilised, though the airport security didbn't know quite what to make of it. WE knew who was next, and who should be up front, and we took care of it.

Adrienne Bell said...

Line jumpers drive me crazy. I love it when Tom is there with me when it happens because he's never afraid to call someone out on it- the benefit of being a big 6'4" guy. People always seem to find the end of the line after that.

Barbara said...

Oh, I'm with Tom. I never hesitate to inform line jumpers to move to the back, and luckily I've got that old German dad voice that works like a charm. I love me an orderly line, must the the old German in me too. Order is calm, chaos is, well, chaos.

Unknown said...

There is an odd pleasure to following safety rules, but maybe that's just me, clinging to the last vestige of order in a chaotic world.

I have to mediate my desire to bust line-jumpers when traveling with my husband -- he would prefer that I not pick fights that he has to finish :)

Here in the city, more than once, we've been assaulted by rich women who felt the fact that they were in a hurry was more important than the fact that we were in line first (and the *only* other customers). It was very fun when the clerk agreed with us :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

On a trip to Italy several years ago, my sister, brother and parents were waiting in line to get into the Vatican on a miserably rainy morning when four Middle-Eastern men tried to cut in front of them. My sister told them to go back, and when they wouldn't she unleashed her ball park whistle and started yelling for the police. This finally dislodged the cutters, but they only went about half way back. This shows that we're really Americans, because most English people would be more reluctant to say something. I think. That's how I was trained by my ethnically British mother, at any rate. Brits glare rather magnificently when in high dudgeon, but that doesn't accomplish much in many other countries.

I love the image of many thoughtful Brits moving those in most need to the front of the line without the security people really knowing what was going on. And Mysti, I love sending Princesses to the end of the line, too. And Princes. One runs into more and more of them, especially in airports and nice restaurants. Adrienne, I think Tom would be very handy for keeping cutting to a minimum. Big enough to make people notice, and so well-mannered he can shame people into better behavior. Barbara, how do I get a German dad voice? I want one since I can't stop traffic with a whistle. Not that I'd use it much, but it would a nice addition to the arsenal.

Rachael Herron said...

I love the way Canadians merge on highways. Nothing more polite and graceful than that.

Sophie Littlefield said...

lgc, how i adore this. you managed to turn an innate something into a word-something - the feeling of community turning against line-breakers. really, i think we could all beset such a person with sticks and rocks with very little additional push :) our raw nature at its best i think...

Unknown said...

Loved this's so you. At a party a few years ago, I was talking travel with someone and they said the thing that struck them most in Australia (at the Sydney opera house) was the orderly queues. :) So perhaps you need to visit there as well.

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