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Rules are arbitrary. Make up your own damn mind.
Note from the future: Like “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You,” the following essay was written a dozen years before this version of my website was launched. I read through it and some other “deep cuts” from my former life as an internet asshole — long before I was an author — and felt it was still worth reading, so I’m posting it here and backdating it all the way to 2001.
It details our decision to unschool our kids, which we did through fifth grade for one of them and second grade for the other. It was a great experiment and lasted exactly as long as it was supposed to. I’m so glad we did it for as long as we did … and I’m equally glad we made the decision to put them in the excellent local schools that became available when we moved to Austin. There was a point where unschooling would have — for our family — been selling them short. But yeah. Man. This was the right call at the time.
School starts today. Not for my son, though.
I'm finishing writing this at 6am. At a little before 8am, the school bus is going to pull up in front of our house, and because we just got around to notifying the district that we're not doing the school thing this year, the bus driver won't know and will honk. I'll be working. My son will be asleep. The dogs will go nuts, because the dogs always seem to go nuts when such things happen, generally taking the attitude of, OH NO YOU DIDN'T JUST HONK IN FRONT OF THIS MOTHERFUCKING HOUSE, BITCH.
Then the bus will go away and sometime later he’ll wake up, and we'll hang out and maybe watch a science show on TV or something. Afterward, we'll do our normal Wednesday thing, which is going to my gym, then to Target to window-shop the new toys, then to Chipotle for lunch. He'll spend the afternoon drawing and reading these old, used Mario Bros books I got for him on Amazon (or possibly browsing the Mario Bros wiki — noticing a trend here?). He may play a game with me (I'm working on both The Sims and Sim City), play outside, or opt for some actual Mario Bros on the Wii.
Then, around four in the afternoon, the bus will go past again. And when it does, we're both going to laaaaaaugh at our good fortune. We're going to think about how we could have done what were told … and about how every day from here on out, thanks to a defiant little decision we made to “unschool” our kids, we're going to have a hell of a lot more fun doing our own thing.
I wasn't always like this.
I used to be a good boy. I really did.
When I was growing up, I always did what I was told. I followed all of the rules; I did well in school; I was home by curfew; I hung out with the other good, rule-abiding kids. I asked for a hall pass before going to the bathroom. I raised my hand before asking a question. I never got into any trouble, never went to the wrong parties, and never ingested the wrong substances.
I graduated first in my class, with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Gave a speech at commencement. Went to college and graduated from there summa cum laude, With Distinction. I wasn't sure what to do when that was finished, but I’d been told that the more academic credentials a person got, the better and more fruitful their life would eventually be. So I applied for a grad school fellowship, got it, and began work on a Ph.D.
I followed all the rules that our society gives us because that was clearly, demonstrably, indubitably the way to achieve a great and successful life. In high school, they even verified that I was on the right path by announcing that I and my friend Gretchen were "Most Likely to Succeed." We wore suits and covered ourselves in money for the yearbook photo of that accolade, because there was going to be a lot of green in our bright futures.
Out of everyone, I was the most likely to succeed. Me. And you know what? Damn skippy. I'd earned it. Life is hard. You have to work to get what you want, and I was willing to work. I wasn't going to be one of those lazy people who just kind of let life happen. I was going to make life happen.
So every step of the way, I said to the world, "What should I do?" and the world answered back, "Here's what you've gotta do to have a rocking life … but dude, I should warn you, it's hard as fuck!" But then I gave this dismissive wave and I was like, "World, bro, it's cool. I got this. I'm a hard worker. Consider it rocked."
So I worked. And I worked. I had been given guidelines, so I stepped through them. The exact recipe for awesomeness, I followed it. The exact steps to take for a rockstar life, I took them.
But, to my surprise, a few years later I found myself in that Ph.D. program and was starting to have panic attacks because it was so incredibly shitty. And so I said, "World, dude, that path sucks." The world said, "Okay, try this," and I retooled my efforts and worked hard again, following the plan and the steps again, in a different direction this time, and found myself working hard for mediocre pay and mediocre rewards, doing mediocre work that bored me but that I felt I shouldn't complain about. But still I'd say, "World, man, this is hardly the high life. When do the fireworks start?" And the world said, "Keep working." And so I did.
So I started writing articles and copy as a freelancer. Eventually, after more work and more waiting and more doing of the mediocre stuff that bored me but that I felt I shouldn't complain about, something happened that wasn't supposed to happen. Suddenly, as the economy tightened, all of my clients began to fold or just stop using me. And what was worse, it happened at the same time as my extracurricular real estate investments began to eat me alive.
I stopped worrying about the rockstar life I was promised and decided that just surviving would be pretty damn rockstar in the short term. I would have been happy simply treading water, but that didn't happen. Instead, things got worse. Clients receded even more, then vanished. No new clients called. The real estate thing got bad. Very bad. Values plummeted. Tenants didn't pay, then destroyed the properties. The city, desperate for money, turned on its property owners and assessed more fees, more fines, more taxes. Someone would set the garbage out a few hours early and I'd get a bill for $150. The city would decide the grass was a tad too long on one of the postage-stamp-sized lots and would cut it for me, then send me a bill for $600 or more, no exaggeration. The spiral began.
Thus began a few years of constant panic, wherein I was always worried about what was going to happen next. It was terrible, and totally unanticipated. None of this was supposed to happen. None of this was in the plan. I couldn't sleep. I kept having panic attacks. I earned much less than I was spending, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
When I asked the world how long I could expect this to go on for, the world was like, "BWAAAAAHAHA … suck-er!"
Eventually, the banks decided they were tired of me and kindly asked for their properties back, so one by one, they went. It was a significant defeat. I'd always honored all of my commitments. I'd always paid what I owed. Now I was one of those guys, one of those deadbeats, one of the people who was part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Deal-breaker. Welcher. Pariah.
I waited for financial ruin. I waited to wake up on the street, in a box, begging for change. I waited for someone to show up on my doorstep and toss a bag over my head and carry me away, never to be seen again.
But nothing happened.
The sun rose. Flowers bloomed. People even continued to talk to me as if I weren't a complete failure, as if they didn't know or possibly — unthinkably — didn't care.
Life went on.
I think that's when I realized it's all bullshit.
The truth about rules
Rules, guidelines, and even laws are someone's opinion about how things should be done. Nothing more.
For example: There is no absolute, must-happen decree that says that if someone steals, he must go to prison. Not in the way there's an absolute, must-happen decree that says you can't divide by zero or that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, anyway. Some people in our society believe that theft is wrong and that those who steal should go to prison, and right now those people are in the majority and have the means to enforce their opinion … but it's still just an opinion.
Similarly, the predominant opinion right now is that marrying your cousin should not be allowed.
There's a big consensus of opinion from those at the top that says that if you make X dollars, you must pay Y dollars in taxes.
If the crosswalk light says "Don't Walk," the currently stated, recorded, and sporadically enforced opinion is that you shouldn't cross the street even if there are no cars coming. Same deal with red lights on deserted roads at 3am.
During Lent, Catholics have the opinion that members of their faith aren't allowed to eat meat on Fridays.
In college, we used to fuck with our Catholic roommate during Lent, trying to determine exactly how specific God's opinion was on that one. What if you ate something that you didn't know contained meat? What if you were driving east at 11:30pm and unknowingly crossed into a new time zone right before biting into a cheeseburger? During an airline flight, did God go by departure time, arrival time, or local time when determining the Hell- or Heavenbound nature of your meals?
"What if you're a butcher," I remember saying, "and you're slicing up a side of beef on Friday when a stray bit of flesh becomes airborne and lodges itself in your throat. You begin to choke. You can't cough it up, but you could swallow it and save your life. What then, when your life is at stake?"
Ridiculous? Sacrilegious? Okay, here's another:
What if you steal a car … but then sell it to a chop shop and use the money to buy a heart transplant for a kid who was days from death and had no other options?
What if you kill a man who was plotting to shoot up a McDonald's? What if you commit one murder to prevent a dozen murders?
The "obviously correct" judgment of the law starts to sound more and more like an opinion when a new variable is introduced, doesn't it?
And okay, these "what if this?" exercises may feel like cerebral game play, but you don't even need to look to extreme examples to see the tenuous, opinion-based nature of laws. Drug legality. Determining fair use in a copyright infringement case. Every time a law is applied, it’s applied as a matter of opinion.
And those are the laws — the biggest and baddest rules we have. So think about the smaller rules, like a club’s rules. Or social standards. Or values. Or "the way things are normally done."
Opinions, every one. Yet we live our lives as if they're immutable truths.
Change the game
Conform to a rule, and good things don't happen so much as the system plods along, undisturbed. Break one, and you'll get a reaction. If it's a big rule, the reaction is big: Arrest. Scorn. Excommunication from the church. If it's a small rule, the reaction will be small: Criticism. Funny looks. Or simply anticipation of a response that turns out to be nothing at all.
Stimulus, response. That's all rule-following and rule-breaking — or conformity and nonconformity — is.
As the punk rock thinkers in Operation Ivy once said, "Success is obedience to a structured way of life."
"Success" means nothing more than playing a certain game well enough to receive whatever high accolades exist within that game. The problem with my early attempts at following "the usual rules" to achieve "the usual success" was that those weren't the rewards I actually wanted.
Turns out, I wanted a different kind of success than academic or career achievement. Freedom. Happiness. And yes, some money to make the ride a bit more interesting. Different rewards, different game. Meaning I'd have to play by different rules — and that meant I’d hav to apply different stimuli in order to get the different response I actually desired.
The second half of the Operation Ivy quote above goes like this: "You can't ignore the structure because we're all within its sight." It works because it's a good rhyme, but it also works because we live in a so-called "normal" world as a population that’s doesn’t homogeneously fit the definition of "normal". Yet the normal world still has its rules, and it still wants everyone to play by them. And so it tries to enforce those rules … and that means it's up to you to see the system, to recognize that its structure is just opinion, and to act accordingly if "normal" isn’t the way you roll.
In other words, you can't ignore the structure … but you can weigh it, measure it, and decide just how disobedient you can get away with being.
I'm not an anarchist. I'm glad there are laws in place that will prevent people from killing me and taking all of my stuff. I think our society needs order. It needs structure. But it's wrong to assume that every guideline that rises out of a structured society is right for every person in it. I wouldn't choose to break many laws, but I would and do choose to not buy into a lot of this world's bullshit.
Case in point:
The numbers are growing, but our choice to homeschool our son is still an oddity. Unschooling, as a specific type of homeschooling, is even odder. All of our neighbors send their kids to school. All of my son’s friends from kindergarten and daycare before that are going to school. All of my relatives' kids go to school, and so do the kids of all of my high school friends. What’s more, we tell any of those people that we're homeschooling, they assume we're doing it with textbooks and exercises and chalkboards and worksheets, not games and regular books and discussions and field trips.
Without question, we're weird in this choice.
And that was a concern for my wife when we first started thinking about this whole homeschooling thing. She knew homeschool kids growing up, and they were always weird.
My response was: "You know … we're weird."
I mean, you’ve read enough from me to know that, right? The fact that I don’t have a normal job is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm fucking WACKO.
But that's really not entirely fair. "Weird" sounds bad, but it actually just means that something is outside of the normal nine dots. If the majority does one thing, the outliers who do something else are "weird."
"Normal" is a consensus, nothing more.
If tomorrow, ninety percent of the world's population started scooting around on its collective asses while wearing dead raccoons as hats, people who walked on two feet and were visibly raccoonless would be called "weird."
So before I decide if it's a problem that my kids may be weird, I have to know what we're comparing that to. I have to ask what's normal, and decide if I want anything to do with it.
It's pretty "normal" nowadays for 13-year olds to text each other sex photos. Not everyone's doing it, but it's not unusual. And come to think of it, 16-year-old virgins are really considered a rarity. Sure, there's still a lot of them, but usually they take shit for it.
Kids lose their innocence and naiveté early.
Teenagers are difficult and argue with their parents.
Kids party. Kids drink. Kids screw. Kids get into trouble. And I know what you're thinking: Can't fight human nature. Kids will be kids, right? Can't stop it. It's how they are. It's totally and completely … NORMAL.
Ah. Ding ding.
I had a good relationship with my parents (and even teachers!) all through my teen years. I didn't drink. I was totally naive; I once reflected that there were no drugs in our school and the person I said it to looked at me like I had two heads because it was so ridiculous that I'd missed them.
I was so …. non-normal.
Normal. Awesome, revered, immortal and celebrated normal. As if the way we've stumbled into living is the way things should be because it's what everyone has always done. As if the well-traveled path is the best path. As if social proof is an unquestioned and absolute good; as if the fact that five hundred people have used this plumber over that one means that the first is the best. As if doing what the guy in front of you did — which is what the guy in front of him did, which is what the guy in front of him did — is a good strategy.
They've done experiments, where a few people will stand in line in front of a door that leads into a building like a post office or a grocery store. The door can be a side door or a back door: an illogical line in an illogical place. But what happens when they conduct these experiments? Why, people stand at the back of the line, of course. And as the line gets longer, even more people will come over and stand in it. They could be standing in front of a locked door to a storeroom and they'll wait for hours, but nobody asks why. People just automatically conform. They figure that if there's a line, everyone in front of them must know something they don't.
Mindless conformity is what turns us from humans into sheep.
People have been beaten to death by crowds that could easily overtake the attacker. The bigger the crowd, the more likely it is that nobody will intervene. The principle is called "diffusion of responsibility," and boils down to the pressure for conformity overwhelming the need to act. Any guilt over not acting is shared between the people not acting. You alone didn't stand by and watch someone get killed, after all. It was a crowd of 1000 who did that. You only stood around to the tune of 0.1% of the incident as a whole.
If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump too?
Why do we look to everyone else to see what to do? Why don't we understand that everyone else is as lost and scared as we are? Why do we look at a random consensus, shaped by opinions and powers that drift like dunes, as if they are absolute truth? If "normal" could change tomorrow, why are we such slaves to it?
And where has "normal" gotten us, anyway?
We live in a society that can't stop pollution or environmental destruction, that can't raise educational standards, can't stay healthy, can't balance a budget, has no sense of fiscal responsibility, is in an economic tailspin, is rife with crime and murder and violence, and is so polarized that everyone blames the other person instead of trying to solve anything.
Most people in this "normal" society of ours begin sitting still in a room for six to eight hours beginning in childhood. They continue that for twelve years and then begin sitting still in a different room for another forty years, at which point they hope to retire and sit still in a chair in front of the TV until they die. Most people prioritize other people's demands and needs over their own and choose work over fun. Most people choose THINGS over HAPPINESS. Most people spend more time disliking what they're doing than they spend enjoying themselves.
We work ourselves into a set of financial demands and spend our lives trying to maintain those demands. We're trained to believe that if we're having fun, we're doing something wrong. Kids learn that it's not cool to be kids; instead, they should strive to be as adult as possible as early as possible. We live in a society where it's strange to show too much joy, where we get love for our failures and are scorned if we're too successful.
And all of this normality? It's hereditary. It's passed from generation to generation to generation, like an obscene and distorted game of Telephone.
If you're Black, you're judged by prejudices imposed on generations that came before you. If you're White, you're scorned for the actions of your ancestors, and tend to de-facto inherit some degree of apologism for those actions. If you're a woman, you're still somehow judged as less-than by a lot of men based on attributes that haven't mattered since survival depended on the ability to throw a spear — this despite all the “progress” we’ve made on society’s many -isms. We hate people from other countries because our governments are at war. We're told X is bad: Hate X. We're told that Y is good: Love and consume Y. Someone, somewhere, gives an opinion and we're all expected to jump, to conform to that person's view of the world.
All of us, every day, inherit problems we didn't create. Motherfuckers get greedy with oil, and everything we buy gets a lot more expensive. Motherfuckers get uppity in another country, and we and our friends and family are expected to leave home to fight and die. Motherfuckers make management mistakes in distant offices, and the house of cards collapses, leaving everyone to scramble to make a living and feed our families. Motherfuckers botch a drilling operation in the ocean and fuck up the environment for the rest of us. Motherfuckers go crazy and shoot up a McDonald's, or a bank, or a school. Motherfuckers do dumb shit, and we all have to deal with it. Every day, we're asked not just to take responsibility for our own actions, but for those of everyone around us. Every day, we're asked to deal with for problems we didn't consent to create. We're told to clean up messes we didn't make. We're told to toe the line in conditions we had no hand in.
Well FUCK. THAT. SHIT.
I'll make up my own mind, thanks.
You have nobody
You're on your own, baby. I'm sorry.
Being a good and reasonable person in a good and reasonable and awesome life has nothing to do with following rules. It has to do with assessing rules, and guidelines, and norms, and prejudices, and ways of doing things, and established procedures, and prerequisites, and prejudices, and suppositions, and paradigms, and doing what the Oracle in The Matrix advised one do in the absence of proof or instructions: To make up your own damn mind.
If you're at least a somewhat rational human being, my guess is that you're going to find most of the rules we already have really do make sense. Don't murder. Don't steal. Don't rape. Don't beat people up. Don't be an insufferable asshole.
But if you're similarly rational, you're also going to realize that some of the rules and norms don't feel as cut-and-dry. They’re just group-think, and can be disobeyed — maybe should be disobeyed — for the greater good.
You have nobody to look to when making these choices. Not in an absolute sense, anyway. Every person you know who has done something in a certain way gives you a piece of data, not a decision. Look to your mentors, parents, friends, and people you respect for input if you must, but then compile that data and make a conscious decision of your own. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
You will make your own decisions, and you will face the consequences of those decisions. If you defy rules, sometimes the consequences are big. Sometimes they're small. Sometimes, there are no consequences at all. And often, often, often, the consequences are not what you think they will be. Those things you think will end your life are not going to end your life. In the end, because you’re doing something that others find “weird,” those life-ending things turn out to be just … uncomfortable.
You create your own reality. So create it already.
I'm proud to be weird. I will forever proudly wave the flag of the minority. I'll hold a book, hold a torch.
Give me your screw-ups, your freaks, your huddled masses yearning to be fucking awesome.
You don't have to be an anarchist. Anarchy would suck. But you can look at the rules that you live by. You can look at the standards you're keeping. You can see if you're doing what you do because it's always been done that way … and if you do that, you can also decide that's an idiotic way to go through life. If you’d like — and it really, truly is up to you — you can choose something better.
Tired of being an accountant and want to go to clown college? Fuck it. Be a clown.
Think your kids are suffocating in school? Fuck it. Take them out of school.
Bills killing you and keeping you from sleeping? Fuck it. Stop paying them and see what happens. Would you rather be busted down to a shabby apartment and be rid of the fear your days, or continue to live in an expensive house while you can’t sleep for fear, hating your life?
Quit that stupid job. Learn that sport that enthralls you. Choose fun over work. Wear that ridiculous hat you like. Take up ballet no matter what your contractor buddies say. Ask for the date. Commit too early. Do the idiotic. Follow your heart. Try the impossible. Do something crazy.
I live in this world, and I choose to follow most of its rules because I consciously choose not to face what would come from defying them. But I opt out of more and more, as my opting-out muscles grow.
Less stuff. Less information forced down my throat. Less news and world events. Less bureaucracy. Less indoctrination. More freedom. More fun. More choice. More self-determination.
I live with the rest of you, and I love you guys, but you can't choose for me any more than you'd want me to choose for you. I'm not ready to be a Luddite, but I'm going to make my own cocoon within this society as much as I can. My own personal bubble. Like normal society, with a few enhancements. Society 2.0, as it were.
There's a quote that says, “If you can't win the game, change the rules.”
So change some rules. Decide on your own game, the kind of game you might actually like to win.
And win it.
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