>Rule Busters

>It’s always bittersweet to read the essays that get published in an issue of a magazine that didn’t accept my own. Bittersweet because I want them to be good. I want them to be better than what I submitted, and when they are, well, it’s actually kinda’ sweet. But when they’re not…. But what writer could possibly be objective about such a thing? Well, today I decided to try. I picked up a copy of the September issue of skirt! and dove right in. The theme this month is “Rules.”

First of all, kudos again to skirt! for their excellent cover art and overall design. And I’ve been meaning to mention this since it was announced back in May: Congrats for winning five awards at the Association of the Southeast GAMMA awards in Atlanta! You can read more about it here.

But back to the “Rules” issue. I submitted an essay called “Rule Busters,” which was rejected back in July. Of course I thought it was a good essay, or I wouldn’t have submitted it. Since skirt! published my essay, “myPod” last November, and then the next one I submitted, “Burying Saint Joseph” made the cut for the January issue, I was thinking the publisher liked my voice. But “Rule Busters” is the second piece they’ve turned down, so I rushed to read the ones that were chosen this month. (You can read them all here.)

The first one that caught my eye was Stacy Appel’s essay, “A Fender-Bender on Memory Lane.” Stacy has had several pieces published in skirt! so I figure she’s got the formula down. What a great essay! (You can read it here.) Since I also got in trouble a lot in school, I laughed as she recounted scenes with her kindergarten teacher, with whom she was having lunch years later as an adult. There are some similarities between Stacy’s essay and mine, but she one-upped me with her “own rules for living” that she added near the end. And with the reference to the Erica Jong poem. Here’s that part, which is my favorite paragraph:

In a poem, Erica Jong made it clear that one rule for herself as a writer was to leave the vacuuming and the dusting to her female forebears; she’d take up her pen instead and learn to make peace with all the dust bunnies. I believe I’d feel safe around her. People who break rules for the right reasons make me feel as if there’s a grown up in charge. I feel comforted by whistle-blowers and choreographers and comedians, and caring people with messy desks.

Great stuff, Stacy! I wasn’t as excited about “Refrigerator Rules,” although its humor added a light touch to the issue. “Ruling the Road” and “Unlawfully Wed” didn’t seem like winners over my submission, either. (She said, ignoring the chip on her shoulder.) I did enjoy “Prince and the Baptist Girl Revolution,” by Denise Turner and actually saw a few comparisons to my own, unpublished essay.

But “MiaRules” by Monica Crumback was a delightful read. It reminds me of the essays my Goddaughter Katherine has been writing about trying to avoid stereotyping while raising her own daughter. Did I mention that Katherine’s essays are definitely skirt!-worthy? (She said, proprietarily.)

Something I really enjoyed in this issue was the profiles of local women, who were asked to share their “rules” for living. My favorite was Anita Tate, Licensed General Contractor and owner of her own construction company, JAC, Inc. I’ll close my survey of skirt!’s September issue with Anita’s Rules, which were just what I needed to hear today:

Take time each day to give thanks for your journey.
Live a quiet life and mind your own business.
Get over it. Usually it’s not about you. (You know what I mean.)
Be careful what you listen to, but be even more careful what you hear.
Set aside some time each day to renew your mind and to go within for the answers.

I’m going to print those off and put them beside my computer. No, my bedside table. Maybe both.

Okay, here it comes. Since I crafted “Rule Busters” specifically for this issue of skirt! and I’m really not wanting to revise it and send it out in search of another home, I’ve decided to publish it here at Pen and Palette. I’m hoping that some of you skirt! readers will enjoy this castoff from the September “Rules” issue’s slush pile. Just consider it a freebie. Well, that won’t work, since the magazine is free. Hmmmm, let’s just call it the “UnEssay” to go with the “UnRules” on the cover. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for reading.

Rule Busters

“The economy class restrooms are in the back of the plane, ma’am. Please return to your section.”

The stewardess in First Class on the KLM jet that was bringing us home from Greece last fall stood firm, like a prison warden, arms crossed in front of her chest.

“Oh, I’m not going to the bathroom,” I offered.

“Then what are you doing here?”

My palms got sweaty and I found myself clearing my throat like a kid caught in the hall without a pass. “It’s just that I can’t sleep and my legs are hurting, so I thought I would walk a few laps around the plane, you know, up one aisle and down the other.”

“I’m sorry, but you are disturbing the passengers in this section. Please stay in your area of the plane. We have our rules, you know.”

Although the stewardess was clearly younger than me, I found myself saying, “Yes, ma’am.” Glancing around as I turned to leave, I noticed that all the First Class passengers were asleep—wrapped, cocoon-like, in soft blankets with legs outstretched in their extended seats, the wires from their headsets winding across their laps. Half-empty champagne glasses and copies of European magazines rested on their tray tops, remnants of their pre-nap activities. Earlier, I had heard laughter coming from this same stewardess as she served her wards, flirting with business men and offering every available comfort to weary world travelers. I almost wished we had used a Rule Buster with our WorldPerks miles to upgrade to First Class for the trip.

It wasn’t the first time I was busted for breaking the rules. I’ve pushed the edge of the envelope most of my life, with a variety of consequences being suffered along the way.

For “talking too much in class,” my first-grade teacher sealed my mouth with masking tape, stood me in the hall outside the classroom door and called my father to come pick me up! In Jackson, Mississippi in 1957, I guess this wasn’t considered abuse on the teacher’s part. Happily, the incident resulted in one of my favorite memories—my father hugging me on the way to the car and saying, “You okay, Motor-Mouth?”

A few years later I ended up in the principal’s office at yet another elementary school writing over and over (for an hour every day after school all week) “I must not climb on the roof.” My brother and I had climbed on top of the school over the weekend to retrieve baseballs to sell around the neighborhood to earn spending money for the Mississippi State Fair. The plan went South when I jumped from the roof of the main building and broke a hole in the metal roof leading to the trailers being used as temporary classrooms. The metal wasn’t strong enough to hold me, so I landed on the sidewalk below, spraining an ankle in the process. To add insult to injury, we had to use our fair money to pay for the roof repairs.

By junior high I had progressed to selling raffle tickets to win an AM/FM radio. I sold them in the halls between classes and in the locker rooms during P.E. The nice policeman who met with me and my mother in the principal’s office couldn’t find anything exactly illegal about the activity, but the principal made it clear it was against the rules. Since I was a cheerleader and an honor student, they let it slide.

By high school I had bought into the old adage that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” On Senior Jersey Day, when I showed up in my “Class of ‘69” football jersey, without a skirt underneath (the dress code didn’t allow for slacks or jeans back then) I ended up in yet another principal’s office. The fact that the jersey was as long as some of the dresses we wore to school that year didn’t seem to appease the principal, who gave me the choice of pulling on a skirt under the jersey or facing suspension. D.A.R. Good Citizenship Girl busted. I actually was the D.A.R. Good Citizenship Girl that year, as well as Secretary of the Student Council and Business Manager of the school newspaper. But I continued to have a hard time with rules.

It’s not that I don’t believe we need rules in order to avoid total chaos in society. Or that I’m for a socialist economy. I understand that when you pay for First Class, you get the drinks and the meal and the big seats, and if you pay for Economy, you get, well, economy. But I grew up in the ‘50s in the South, and I still remember seeing bathroom doors and water fountains that said “Colored” and “White” on them. And when I rode the Trailways bus from Jackson to Meridian, Mississippi, to visit my grandmother in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, it bothered me that the “Colored” people still sat in the back, even though the “rules” had changed.

I was four years old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. And I was fourteen when I witnessed a cross burning in the front yard of my eighth grade boyfriend’s house in 1964. His family had moved to Mississippi from up north, and his dad worked for the FBI. I had stepped outside the circle of “cool kids” to go steady with Gary that year. He was kinda’ artsy, and maybe a little bit nerdy. Definitely a rule buster.

I hadn’t thought about Gary for years, until one night in July when I drove down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, with some friends from my writers group in Oxford, for the second night of the Neshoba County Fair. The fairgrounds were about three miles from the farm where three civil rights workers had been buried back in 1964, after they were savagely beaten to death. It was the same year the cross was burned in Gary’s yard. It felt creepy driving down Highway 21, but as we entered the main gate, the beauty of the decorated cabins, festive lights and music lifted my spirits.

While listening to the music and readings under the main pavilion at Founder’s Square, I noticed that among the thousands of visitors to the Fair, there was not one Black person anywhere. The crowd looked like generations of old money with a splattering of nouveau South. And then a group of security guards approached the pavilion. One of the guards was a young Black man—a lone “Colored” person in a sea of whites. I wondered if he knew the history of the area where he was working that night. I approached him with a smile, catching his eye just long enough to say, “hello.” He smiled back and nodded, ignoring the cup of beer I held in my hand. Neshoba is a dry county, but the Fair officials let you bring your own drinks. I guess some rules are just made to be broken.

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