Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rules are for people who don't know better

Rules are pesky little critters, aren't they? You make one, or more, to cover situations in your personal or professional life and the next thing you know, you have people asking if you can make an exception, just this one time for a really good reason, and before you know it, we're up to another request for an exception and then another and by the time we're halfway down the rabbit hole we've changed everything to include exactly why we were following the rabbit down the hole. My mother used to say 'when the exception proves the rule' which was her idea of a Zen precept, I suppose (Mom looks nothing like David Carradine and I never needed to snatch pebbles from her hand, for which I am grateful). And she certainly never lived here in Norwich, though I suspect small town back-slapping is the same everywhere.

The trouble with exceptions, not the rules we are excepting, is that, as Mom points out, eventually they become the precedents we deploy to ask for MORE exceptions to more rules. Sort of like 'can I jump off the Gold Star Bridge?' Answer no, and then you have to explain why you let that nice young man, Johnny Finnegan, jump off the bridge last month. Lost in the explanation of the exception is that (perhaps) Johnny was on fire (don't store that gasoline in your garage by the way; we need the space to store the Ark in case it floods) and needed to be extinguished quickly. All that remains is that, even though you have a rule about jumping off that bridge, you let Johnny Finnegan NOT follow the rule and you are unfair and unreasonable if you don't let the next person jump off the bridge as well. As for the rule about 'no jumping', you can still keep it on the books, it's not like we're going to pretend it's not there, we're just not going to follow it.

It's a little like that riddle your child brings home in the third grade (both Patrick and Michelle came home with it and I think I did, too. Perhaps there's a gnome who lives in the third grade and passes along this stuff to every wave of children who flow through the class so that these things become traditions?) and the riddle goes: 'what's green, lies in a field and has wheels?' Eventually you give up trying to guess. The answer your child offers with a mischievous grin is 'grass!' which confuses you so much that you protest, 'but you said 'what has wheels?'' And your child responds, 'oh, I lied about the wheels.' Oh. Sure.

The rule might say when I buy a piece of property from the City and promise to accomplish Project X for Y amount of money before coming back to buy another piece of property, I really shouldn't come knocking on the door and complain that, because I chose to spend a LOT more money than I wanted to on the first part, I can't afford to do the next part in the manner we agreed to so can we change it? If I work this right, as a corrolary to the Abilene Paradox, I can scare you with the possibility of negative consequences if you don't agree to be a part of my desire to ignore our agreement. Better yet, by adopting this tack, I can set this up so that I don't actually have to do, or threaten to do, anything; your action, and or inaction, absolves me of all responsibility. Sweet! Instead of 'agreeing to disagree', we create an alternate universe that says we agree to pretend there's no agreement. But that's okay, too (sort of), because you like me, you really like me (Sally Field! Stop humping my leg!) and you really like what I've done with the place and it's just a small rule and it's only a one-time favor. Until the next time. Or the next person who wants a deal and makes me her/his precedent.
But cheer up! We have a rule-we just don't follow it.
Thanks for not pointing that out.

We spoke warmly (and at length last night of projects that have been accomplished in recent years in Norwich (I liked the part where an alderman recused himself from voting because of his association with a developer, but saw no reason to recuse himself from any of the nearly hour long discussion about the developer's request. I think we have a rule on that, too.). Nostalgia can be a fog that both covers and conceals and we certainly don't have any of that here in The Rose City.

"Praise be to Nero's Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them/And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea/Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much/About Desolation Row"

Can't wait to see what that rehab project costs. I already know who'll pay.
-bill kenny

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