Politicians are always squawking madly that America works best when her citizens “Play by the Rules” (PBTR). The rules to which they refer are, at their most basic level, work hard, save your money, and don’t get into debt (that last one might be out of date). Depending on how disciplined you are or can be, more complex levels of the rules include heterosexual marriage, children, home ownership, and a zillion other lifestyle tweaks that add up to being a good clean-cut American citizen. Those who PBTR are rewarded, primarily, with enough money to make their lives comfortable or even luxurious. They can afford to buy fun stuff—boats and vans and summer homes—travel to the far reaches of the globe, and go on adventurous vacations like jungle safaris, parachuting, and other wild thrills. Or they can simply accumulate lots of jewelry or cars or let the cash itself pile up.
Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently made a rather shocking statement: he said, expressing hostility towards them, that some people don’t want to PBTR. They don’t. Want. To play. By the rules.
I’ve been mulling this over since he said it, and you know what? He’s absolutely right! A lot of us do not want to PBTR. I am one of them. I’ve lived my entire life far outside the rules—consciously and intentionally.
I am a writer. Pre-Internet it was nearly impossible to make money writing, and even today, most of us cannot, do not, and will not work 9 to 5 jobs out of which we spin hot careers. We already have hot careers: as writers. Unlike most careers, however—except for the plum jobs like corporate newsletter editor and a very few others—writing doesn’t support its practitioners immediately, if ever. Writers have to find ways to support our careers until they support us. Sometimes they never do, and we surrender to some other occupation. Or we just surrender, period, and litter the landscape with our exhausted bodies. Or we keep on keepin’ on, usually unhappily, our lives a study in subversion of the rules and its deprivations. This is, of course, true not only of writers but of all artists: photographers, painters, sculptors, and other creative geniuses. We comprise a sizeable chunk of the American populace that doesn’t PBTR. This has always been the case, and it always will be.
Then there are those whose art is creative living: there were more of these back in the late 60’s, called “hippies.” I knew people who took the hippie lifestyle a lot further than I did: living on the land, sometimes communally, in teepees, cabins, and tents. My kids and I (usually) lived in a traditional house, though not strictly in PBTR circumstances. For awhile we lived on a hilltop buried in snow half the year, in one of five cozy little bungalows huddled in a protective semi-circle, in each of which lived a single mother and one or two kids. I was the only adult with a real job—secretarial of course—to supplement my paltry child support check. I remember one of the women, a conservative’s worst nightmare, who claimed it was more principled to let the government support mothers via welfare so they’d stay home with their kids than for her to leave them every day for a job. As a feminist striving for independence, I found this rather shocking—but as time went by, I came to see her point of view as viable. I still do. In order to see it differently, I first had to check my premises—an idea promoted incessantly by Paul Ryan’s mentor, Ayn Rand.
“Check your premises” was, in my opinion, the most sensible thing Rand ever said—but Paul Ryan evidently didn’t pay attention to this piece of Randian philosophy. He hasn’t checked the premises that underlie the practice of playing by the rules. When he says some people don’t want to, he’s assuming evil premises, one of which is that if you don’t PBTR, you’re lazy. You’re not working hard. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience: there were times when I held three “part time” jobs that added up, both in hours and muscle power, to more than one. Sometimes I cleaned houses, and worked like a dog. And yes, sometimes I got lucky–like when I collected unemployment–and I got to take it easy.
And what’s so terrible about enjoying life? What’s wrong with spending your days playing music with your kids, or taking them ice skating? What’s so terrible about having a little bit of fun? Come on, tell us, Mr. Ryan: what’s wrong with having fun? Why, when you accuse us of not PBTR, do you attach evil premises to the practice? When I—or another artist or hippie–says someone doesn’t want to PBTR, it’s just a statement of fact. The underlying premise is neutral, with no value judgment attached. Really.
If not playing by the rules is simply a statement of fact without moral value, where does it leave us? At the end of the American Way of Life? Is that what Paul Ryan and those who believe so fervently in PBTR are afraid of? I don’t have an answer. I just think it would be a damn good idea if everyone, especially the people in power, would take a minute or two to check their premises.