The art of breaking rules

Vietcong rubber sandals
This pair of sandals, its soles crafted from tough rubber tires and its straps from rubber interior tubing, was standard issue for South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War. I saw it as a symbol for breaking rules.

I remember an anecdote about breaking rules that I read somewhere, so long ago in my youth I no longer remember from which book or magazine. But the story struck me so deeply I still remember the details like I read it just yesterday.

An American writer is visiting Paris, and one evening he takes a cab to attend a late-evening dinner in another part of the city. The French cab driver, it seems, is fluent enough in English to strike up a conversation with him, and the writer is happy to oblige as he wants tips on how to get around town. So they talk sporadically about random topics.

The cab driver stops at a traffic light that has just turned red. It is already late at night, and the intersection is empty except for the cab. The driver takes a quick glance at the left corner, then the right corner, then peers at his back view mirror. All empty. Showing no hesitance, he crosses the intersection with the traffic light still red.

The American asks him, “I’m in no hurry. But you just crossed the red light. Why?”

The Frenchman weighs his words carefully: “Yes we were in no hurry. But you saw how it was. The crossing was empty. There was no danger of accident.”

“But aren’t you worried about breaking traffic rules?” the American asks again.

“Look, Mister. The State gave us traffic lights so they can do the thinking and deciding for us when there are too many motorists on the road. But God also gave me a brain so I could think and decide for myself when I’m alone on an empty intersection. I will not allow a blind, unthinking traffic light to take over the world and dictate to me what to do when I know what’s right and wrong.”

I loved this anecdote, because it spoke directly to my young rebellious mind. Its essential message, reinforced time and again from my own experience, now remains wired inside me. The message is this: Know the rules, which means to know their limits. Respect the rules to respect other people’s rights. Break the rules as needed, to assert yours.

Since my teenage years I habitually broke rules to test their limits, especially when I knew I was within my rights and didn’t violate other people’s rights.

I’ll have time enough later to write about my diverse rule-breaking misadventures, from the “It doesn’t make sense” slogan that I wrote on all my quiz papers in Grade 5 and 6, to the crazy doodles I drew on the margins of papers I was supposed to edit; from dropping a remark that I knew would raise the hackles of a friend because it was so unpolitically correct, to “picking up stuff” without permission at some UN function room in Geneva because they were  going to be thrown away anyway.

For now, I will merely focus on one of my standard signs of rebellion against rules: wearing sandals.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against shoes, and in fact I’m terribly attached to leather boots and hiking shoes and loafers, not to mention jogging shoes (what they call “trainers” nowadays). But all things being equal, and if I’m allowed to choose on the basis of comfort, convenience, soigne, and a “so what if I look grungy to you” attitude, I’d choose a cool worn-out pair of beach slippers anytime.

I wasn’t always that way, though. Before turning 14, I was as persnickety as a Victorian aristocrat who spent half an hour preening before a mirror, and made sure that my leather shoes were always buffed and brushed to a fine spotless polish (a habit I took from my father). But something happened on the way to my 15th birthday. I became an activist. (That, by itself, was already a signal about my latent rule-breaking tendencies.) And I guess one obvious way to announce my rebellious streak to the whole world was to wear rebellious clothes.

Thus, I joined the small but growing number of activists who wore the “masa look” at school despite strict rules on wearing the school uniform and the gentle admonitions of Director Cleofe Bacungan (who we called “Drabacs” to her face). The masa look meant wearing T-shirts with silkscreened slogans, denims, and slippers.

Later, as a budding print artist who became familiar with the Ermita crowd, I picked up a similarly cool and nasty habit of other artists: that of walking up nonchalantly to five-star hotel lobbies while still in grungy workshop clothes. In my case, that meant paint- or ink-splattered denims, dirty Vietcong sandals, and the scent of turpentine or linseed oil still wafting from my hands. (I did make sure to wipe my hands on the seat of my pants before I shook hands with the hotel interior decorateur, in deference to her coiffure and manicure, prior to showing her my portfolio.) Still much later, I would often thumb my nose at formal dress codes by intentionally wearing beach sandals at work and during parties. (Hey, it’s not just me, I see others doing it too.)

There is an art to breaking rules. The trick is to know just exactly where the line is drawn. You collect yourself and say you can do it. Then step on the line. If you feel right about it, then step further, just across the line, as if it was the most natural thing to do. If you’re comfortable where you are, then do the whole nine yards. At that point when you start to feel discomfort setting in — maybe the hotel doorman has started to glare at you, and you don’t want a quarrel — then simply smile and stay back, and stop doing it. There will be other opportunities later to break some silly old rule.

Never look guilty, because you shouldn’t be. Never feel regret, because you shouldn’t feel any. If you find utmost satisfaction after the fact, and no one got killed or hurt his toe or suffered a heart attack or bruised his ego, then bask in the glory of success. You just passed a blind red signal light in the middle of an empty night, is all. You just wore your Vietcong sandals to the pedicured, pedigreed vin d’honneur, my dear.

Perhaps your rebellious act unraveled a tiny spot in the great fabric of space-time. So what? That tiny spot will repair itself if it’s meant to be, while the ancient cosmic laws remain as stolid as ever. Hence, no worries, no guilt, no regret. Welcome to the rule-breakers’ club. You’re in good company. #

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