Following the Rules

I just got an e-mail from the by-the-hour car rental place: another member had complained about “popcorn and clothes strewn all over the car.”

The clothes weren’t ours — they were left behind by someone else, and I had posted about them to the “lost and found” board instead of complaining to the management like some people I could mention. I guess I just assumed that clothes left behind were “lost,” not “garbage.”

The popcorn, though, was ours. (Well, it was rice cake, to be strictly accurate, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they were talking about.)

This should be a teensy tiny itsy bitsy little thing, right? But no. I, the champion of mountaining molehills, am sitting here besieged by all manner of conflicting emotions:

  • Dude, who reports a few crumbs of rice cake to the authorities? Serious therapy material.
  • Uh-oh — if the few crumbs the other day raised hackles, what are they going to say to the thousand crumbs today? (It was a busy day.)
  • When I found a smashed light bulb in the back seat, I didn’t make a stink — I just swept it out! I mean — these things can happen to anyone!
  • That e-mail was pretty rude. What happened to the company’s “cool, laid-back, and hip” attitude?
  • But the rules do say: leave the car clean. To mean, that means “pretty clean,” since they clean it every other week anyway. Clearly, though, some renters are more fastidious than others.
  • So I broke the rules. And I must be punished.

Seriously, I’ve been feeling bad, really bad, for the last hour. Doing dishes — I’m a bad person — bathing the baby — why did I let the kids play rice cake war? — nibbling on leftover grilled cheese — I deserve their scornful e-mail, every letter of it.

When I posted that I’m a rule follower a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of people assumed I was lying. And in a way, I guess I was: I’m not a rule follower;

I’m a pathological rule follower.

Up to this point in my life, I’ve been able to manage this through constant rule maintenance. I clean up a bagful of crumbs from the floor at IHOP, all the while telling myself a) they don’t have their own brooms and b) that sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time at IHOP. It’s a family restaurant, after all: the height of elegance.

But often, as a parent, you have to break rules, or bend them, at least. And every time, I feel a little shudder of dread.

  • I tossed a recyclable plastic bottle in the trash the other day — it was covered in avocado smear, Boo was grabbing for it, and I was trying to balance a car seat on my back. I just didn’t see how I was going to make it to a recycle bin.
  • Buying weak coffee at the zoo the other day, Park Buddy took a creamer and gave it to Buddy Boy to drink as a treat. No one cared — I mean, we were buying coffee anyway, she only took one or two (which she might have used in her coffee, anyway), the things are vanishingly cheap — but I had an anxious moment all the same.
  • Boo kept dropping little bits of food into the sand at the beach today. Mostly I tried to collect them afterward, but I’m sure there’s a squirt or two of avocado and probably a berry or six still squelching down there as I write this.

There’s nothing wrong with being strict about the important rules: seatbelts, speed limits, peanut intake, that kind of thing. But I’m bothered by some stuff that’s so blindingly trivial as to not even be worth the effort thinking about, let alone correcting.

So I’ll clean up the rice cake. Or not let the kids eat it. Or pay the cleaning fee. And whichever I choose, I’ll try to realize that it just won’t matter in five minutes, let alone five years. Not one little bit.

I can say that. I can even believe it, almost.

But why are the stupid rules so hard to let go of?