Breaking New Ground—A rule is a rule until it isn’t

A child in the 1950s, I learned to follow the rules. I was one of those kids who colored inside the lines. The consequences of not following the rules — a spanking or being grounded — were too dire for my little bottom or adolescent psyche to risk.

When I graduated from college and moved into New York City, sexual pioneer Helen Gurley Brown threw my neatly organized pickup sticks into the air and left me to contemplate my sensibilities all messed up on the floor. In New York I found a world of rebellion and gusto-grabbing. I was dizzied by the possibilities that existed for liberated women. Brown’s pioneering voice showed how women had been girdled by their undergarments long enough; it was time to break new ground, throw off the shackles (even the elastic ones of girdles and bras).

Brown’s book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” preached that not only was it okay for women to have sex before or even without marriage, but we should embrace it. It was the rebellious, lascivious 1960s, when the birth control pill had been legalized.

Unencumbered of our rules, we embraced like crazy.

I broke the rule of “skirts only” at the publishing house Harcourt, Brace & World and wore the first pantsuit in my department. (I still prefer pants to skirts; I own only two dresses.)

Brown and Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem said women could have it all, could live any life they wanted to live. We believed her. In that freewheeling city, we could question the efficacy of rules, challenge status quo in all quarters.

When I left the gridlock of city life to move to Aspen and work with the author Leon Uris, I discovered a world without rules. Their absence enabled us to look objectively at reasons behind rules and adopt them or not depending on their perceived viability.

Some rules seem so deeply rooted that it doesn’t occur to us to challenge them: Rape doesn’t cause pregnancy; the Bible holds the one true word of god; home ownership brings security, for example.

Few things in life, I learned from my parents, were more important than owning one’s own home. There was no more real stake in a community or in one’s seriousness, importance and security. The certitude of that advice percolated until the day my husband and I became enchanted with Mammoth Lakes, with its small-town, ski-town sensibility, and scraped together all our funds and bought a condo, a home. Check. One rule of life, followed.

We enjoyed a few years of feeling proudly serious and important. Then, the recession hit and property values plummeted to the point where our “home” lost half its value and our mortgage was underwater. Our notion that home ownership signaled security was dashed.

With hindsight I find myself questioning the fundamental tenets of American life. Those tenets were more solid and safe in my parents’ times. The world didn’t move at such a meteoric pace. Values and goals handed down by parents had staying power — the venerable institutions such as marriage, owning a home, working for 50 years for one company to earn the gold watch at retirement. Oh yes, how about retirement — there’s a rule that has died a sad death for many Americans. Retirement is now so far beyond the norm, light at the end of the tunnel isn’t even visible.

But back to being liberated, and its value in confronting tired conventions.

Back in the ’60s, breaking the rules was exhilarating. We respected the rules, which was why it was so exciting to break them. In today’s world, many people seem to think they they’re more important than the rules.

In HGB’s era, it was breaking new ground. Today it’s acting like you own the ground. In the forest, dirt bikers ignore posted signs that say no vehicles allowed, and tear up the trails on joy rides. Road rage is an expression that one person’s time is more valuable than the next person’s.

Anything, it seems, carried to extremes, risks losing its purpose, its reason. How do we refresh the rules of life; it’s not so simple as pressing a button on your Internet browser.

And with the world changing so fast, a rule may last through one 24/7-news cycle. Whew! Talk about dizzying.