birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Cheating, peeking, swapping, nonconforming

Could be Worse

The first thing that came to mind when I saw today’s topic was how poorly I’ve been about following the directions each day about what to write. While I guess I usually start off promising, within no time at all I’ve ignored the suggestion and, at best, wrote *about* the topic instead of following orders and keeping the day’s work focused on answering the posed questions.

Then, the other day, there was an email saying that that was okay, but I’m skeptical. One of my greater failings is taking orders (or direction), and there’s no reason I can think of for refusing to adhere to the daily instructions, but maybe that’s okay.

I still feel bad about it, though, especially if I read other’s efforts on the topic and see how well they stuck to the subject. Then again, this isn’t a competition (“no wagering”).

Since I’m often, or usually, reluctant to impose my own views on the world, instead of writing about the rules as I see them, I’ll take the easy way out and use the Ten Commandments. While not universally accepted, at least in Western culture they’re pretty much agreed upon as the way to live one’s life.

I’m not sure if I was proud or disappointed when, halfway through my life, I realized that I’d broken nine of the ten. Fortunately for me, I have no way of knowing if that’s disturbingly high or closer to average, but there it is.

The first eight of the nine I broke all happened real quickly, by the time I graduated high school, although the more I thought about it, the less certain I became. Some, such as stealing, are pretty cut and dried and, yes, I stole some things in my early life. Others, such as honoring my father and mother, are a little less exact, and I’d like to think they’re open to interpretation.

I mean, what does it mean to “honor” someone?

While I don’t remember hardly anything of my formative years (“What did I do when I was, say, eight? It was a whole year of my life, but remains mostly a closed book and if I’m lucky I can remember about an hour of it). I don’t remember ever yelling at my parents, but I know for sure I disappointed them in many ways and that can’t be much of a way to honor them.

The ninth, adultery, came about when I was approaching thirty and certainly should have known better. In my defense, I never cheated on anyone I was with, but I let someone I think I went to High School with have a short fling with me. I’m not proud of that, and, even worse, it meant nothing to me.

So, if those are the rules, I haven’t done a very good job of keeping them. And I broke ten out of eleven if you add the Golden Rule in, so that makes it even worse. I haven’t even kept what I determined to be the only sin (the exploitation of innocence), but at least I know when I break them.



The Blah Blah Blah Incident

I try not to break The Rules just for sport, but when necessary I don't have a problem bending, twisting, swerving, equivocating around, or downright ignoring rules I don't agree with. As long as what I'm doing doesn't harm anybody else, sometimes the best outcome for everyone requires a certain amount of creativity and subterfuge.

That said, I value being able to sleep at night most of all, so being truthful and above board as much as possible has increasingly become my go-to option. Especially following one incident that dates back to my first few months in my current job as a grant writer.

In early 2012, I was submitting a report to a foundation—an important one with a sensitive and at times contentious relationship to us—and I accidentally submitted a draft instead of the final version of the five-page report.

It was mostly the same except for one of the questions on the third page that I hadn't yet answered in that draft version and my placeholder text read "blah, blah, blah...something about kids here."

It was about three weeks after I submitted the report when I was filing our copy of the report, when I happened to glance through it and noticed the mistake I had made.

At this point, I was faced with three options: (1) tell everyone my mistake and throw myself on the mercy of the court; (2) contact my low-level counterpart at the foundation and try to work back channels to get the report switched out; or (3) pretend like I never noticed the error and pray that no one else does either.

Had I had a longer tenure at the job, I felt like I would have earned a reputation of trust, and just admitted my mistake. But I was still new and proving myself, and I thought to myself: "If it hasn't been found yet, I might just get away with it." I went with option three.

But every day for the next six months, when my boss's phone rang, I was convinced that it would be the president of the foundation. The anxiety from this mistake lasted a lot longer than it should have. In fact, I’ve told almost no one I work with the story.

But the universe is kind to those who are patient. Last year, one of my close friends landed a job at the foundation. Before she started, I told her the long story, and gave her a copy of the correct version of the report in an unmarked manila envelope.

In her first week, she waited until the rest of the small staff had left for the day, and went into the grants files and swapped out the offending report. As a memento, she returned the "blah, blah, blah" version to me, which I quickly and unceremoniously shredded.

Having proved myself over nearly six years at my current job and this many years having passed, I know it's just a funny story at this point, but I think I'm waiting for the day when I quit and have a going-away party to tell it to everyone.

I always try to make life experiences a lesson, and the lesson here was to just admit your mistakes when you make them and face the consequences. The more people I've worked with, the more I've come to appreciate the ones who say "It was a mistake, and I made it." Once someone has done that, it's very easy to move on to the part where you find a solution.



Do Not Break Any Rules, Just Bend Them

Another long day listening to witnesses comes to a close, and the lawyers for the other side are packing up and filing out of the deposition room. Leo Farhat motions me to sit down. When the room is all ours, he shuts the door.

Law school doesn’t actually teach you how to be a lawyer. You learn those skills working with experienced attorneys. After law school, I join a big law firm in Washington, D.C., in the group representing radio and TV stations, and cable television systems. Within a year, I am the junior attorney on a case in Lansing, Michigan where our client is trouble. Local groups want the FCC to revoke their TV and radio station licenses.

Leo Farhat, our local counsel, is a trial attorney and was the Attorney General of Michigan. In addition to having a big bag of tricks, he is Lebanese, like me. So after spending a day learning from him, I love having dinner at his house with his family.

With the deposition room now empty and quiet, Leo picks up the trash bin. He noticed that during the day, opposing counsel had been exchanging notes and then tossing them into the trash, basketball style. The bin is brimming with their notes. As Leo starts to fish them out, I ask if we are breaking the rules. He pauses and we start to argue about it. Having served as the state’s chief prosecutor, he is well versed.

We decide there is no actual law or bar rule being violated by reading their notes, but there are ethical issues. Would we want them to read our notes to one another? But Leo is adamant that our duty as attorneys for our client outweighs any ethical, or even moral objections. “We don’t break the rules for clients,” he says, “but we’re the ones who have to bend them.” In the end, there isn’t any news in the notes.



First year woes

The rules at the first college I attended were unwritten and impossible to not know. First rule: Wear polo shirts and khaki pants and topsiders.

I was at University of Virginia for one miserable semester I did not know what made me uneasy, I just knew I did not fit in.

The rules, besides everyone's wearing the uniform listed above, included language: first year, second year, third year, fourth year, not freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. "The Grounds," not the campus. Mr. Jefferson.

The rules included being part of the Greek system, which was, well, Greek to me: I had no idea what Rush Week was (yes, capitalized) and what sororities were. I stopped by tables set up somewhere near my dorm one day; when asked at the first one what sorority my grandmother and mother had been in, I was merely puzzled. I was so unsophisticated that I did not realize I should be embarrassed for having zero idea what they, sitting primly at the table eyeballing the belles, meant.

There were many other layers of orthodoxy, I'm sure, but by now I've forgotten many. I do remember the fraternity keg party where someone (dressed in the uniform, of course) threw himself off a mantel into the arms of many others (dressed in the uniforms, of course), which seemed a source of much hilarity to everyone around. Everyone else, it seemed, knew the rules of what made for fun. I did not.

What are rules about, anyway? A stoplight is a sort of rule to keep us from going through intersections at the same time. I also obey the unspoken but agreed-on rules that make this a more civil society (don't interrupt, hold the door for a few seconds if someone is behind you, don't throw food). I follow even rules whose origins I don't know because they still work, though they can seem arbitrary: break the bread in small pieces before buttering to eat (you don't end up with butter smeared all over your face); write thank-you notes (it's polite, and also stops the chaos of life for a minute for you and the recipient to acknowledge a kindness).

But at UVa I did not know what the rules were about, or even that they were rules, till much later when I could name it: conformity. I hated it. I'm not sure when rules that keep us civil turn into arbitrary ways of trying to bend and shape us into unfamiliar forms that would have us think and act alike, but those are the rules that irk me.

At UVa, I broke the rules: Torn T-shirts, torn jeans, sneakers with shoes untied. Then I dropped out.

Postscript: I do wonder if I was simply prescient in detesting the fashion choices in Charlottesville when that uniform came to represent much worse than frat-boy style many decades later.



Wild Horses

I am as square, compliant and wannabe conformist as they come, and yet I know that I have broken countless rules. And not for lack of trying to stick on the straight and narrow...

Let me back up a bit. For one, the rules are about order but also about control, and the tricky thing is that this desire to order and control does not always come from an authoritarian place. Sometimes (or maybe all the time, if you want to get psychological), the need to control can come from a place of fear and overwhelm.

When I was a kid, I craved a stable place from which I could play and explore. Maybe lots of kids do, but I can only really speak for myself and what I remember. But, I quickly learned that in order to gain that stability and peace of mind in my parents, I needed to follow the rules. And there were a lot of them.

And being the smart and kind sort of a kid that I was, it didn't seem like that much of a big deal. It was something in my control. Something I could do for my mom to make her feel better and her life easier. And, once I got things sorted and did what was expected of me (I reasoned), I could then have the time and space to go back to whatever book it was I was reading or game I was playing.

Except, of course, that time never really came. Or rather, it came, but there was always one more thing to do or one thing missing from the task I had thought I had completed perfectly. And that would sometimes be treated as defiance, which was rule breaking, which upset my parents and therefore, me. I suspect I have mostly repressed the incessant emotional shocks of thinking I had done something well that my mom had told me to do, and being brought in a little later and shown what was wrong or what had fallen short, and why wasn't I paying attention, and no, you may not go back to the TV until you fix this.

Rules are about order, and order is needed, but when you try too hard to order a wild thing like the spirit of a kid, what is it that you end up losing?




Summer break, career break, life break

Waltzing, giggling, partying, fitting in