The community where I grew up was 80 percent Jewish, placing my family firmly in the majority. Never being one for groups, however, I looked outside the herd for friends. That’s how, at the age of nine, I found Ann, a Polish Catholic pistol and an outsider, like me.

That year, for my birthday, I asked for a hobo party. (Theme parties were all the rage then.) The guests were to wear old, torn-up clothes and look as disheveled as possible. The day Ann received her invitation, she could barely face me. Her parents had announced that, as a rule, she was not to go to a party in a Jewish home. Confronted with this baffling proclamation, I responded by following one of my own family’s rules: be direct and honest. I went to Ann’s house and asked her mother why she wouldn’t let Ann come. The fact that my father was the neighborhood doctor was probably the only thing that kept that proud woman from sending me flying.

But the next day, Ann told me her parents had decided to let her come to my party. I was thrilled by the knowledge that even children could change the rules.

On the day of the party, as the guests arrived in full hobo regalia, I anxiously awaited Ann — only to discover that her family had another rule, this one prohibiting “dressing down.” I’ll never forget the look of humiliation on her face as she arrived polished and combed, in her Sunday best.

Name Withheld

If a sign said KEEP OUT, my father saw it as an invitation to enter. The rules of society were created for other people, not him. Once, while I was riding in his car, he drove the wrong way down a one-way street to get to his destination faster. To my horror, a car turned onto the street and came right toward us. The driver, a big, burly guy, rolled down his window to curse us out, but before he could open his mouth, my father yelled, “You idiot, you’re going the wrong way!”

The only rule I remember my father faithfully observing is the Jewish law prohibiting the eating of bread during Passover. One Passover, in 1963, my family traveled south to Miami for my cousin Bobby’s bar mitzvah. As we crossed over the North Carolina state line, a painted sign greeted us that read: YOU’RE IN THE HEART OF KLAN COUNTRY. It was noon, and we were hungry, so we pulled into the Mighty Tasty Diner, where all six of us settled into an orange vinyl booth. My father ordered hamburgers and fries for everyone. The other customers took no particular notice of us until our food came. That was when my father pulled out a box of matzoh emblazoned with big Hebrew letters. Removing the bun from his hamburger, he replaced it with the unleavened cracker Jews use at Passover in lieu of bread.

As my father bit into his hamburger, the customers at the lunch counter swiveled around one by one to stare. These weren’t stares of curiosity. These stares burned holes in your skin and made your stomach sink to your knees. But no one said a word. The Mighty Tasty Diner was silent except for the sound of my father crunching matzoh.

Marla Weiner
Crozet, Virginia

I tried to follow the rules and “be a good little girl,” and three different men, including my father, took sexual advantage of me.

Now I am a single mother, bedding half a dozen different men — all old, married, and monied — to pay my bills. There is a rule against this, too.

Name Withheld

The day of the test, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Benning, told us to write about some rules at home and what happened when we broke them. We would have fifteen minutes. Grammar and spelling counted.

My classmates went right to work, but I panicked. I had nothing to write. There were no rules at my home. Mom was too sleepy and sad to make up rules for me, and Dad was too busy and too angry at Mom.

Sure, I knew without being told not to talk back if I was getting yelled at, and not to interrupt if Mom and Dad were yelling at each other. And I knew never to bother Mom when she was sleeping, not even for meals; and never to come home with a note from school saying I needed a bath, or a winter coat, or a sandwich for lunch. But these things were not what Mrs. Benning wanted to hear. And no one had ever told me exactly what would happen if I broke these “rules.” I just knew it would seem as if my parents didn’t love me anymore, even if they later told me they did.

I would have to lie. So I wrote, “If I don’t go to bed at 8:30, I can’t watch TV the next day.” I used a comma. That would make Mrs. Benning happy.

Name Withheld

In the early eighties, I was teaching English at a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York. While I managed to do some actual teaching, I was basically there to enforce the rules. Because of all the drug dealers on the streets, the students were locked inside the school the moment they arrived in the morning and were not allowed to leave until the end of the day, which meant they couldn’t go out to the local deli or pizza stand for lunch. Many students made a habit of stopping on the way to school in the morning to buy a large supply of candy, which they squirreled away and munched on throughout the day.

Midyear, under pressure from the custodians (who were paid better than the teachers and had a stronger union), the principal instituted a no-candy rule. Since she already greeted the students at the front door in the morning to make sure they were following the dress code — no gang colors or symbols — the principal inaugurated the no-candy rule by additionally searching students and their book bags for contraband sweets.

One boy, after passing the inspection, triumphantly pulled a bag of candy from inside his jacket. On hall duty that day, I reached out and took hold of the bag, thinking the student would curse me then let it go. Instead he held on tight, and we pulled the bag back and forth a couple of times. Finally, he looked me in the eye and said, “Ms. Normand, why you doing this?”

Stunned by the intelligence of his question, I let go of the bag and said, “Damned if I know.”

I gave notice the following week.

Julia Normand
Klawock, Alaska

I spent thirty-five years trying to please my mother, but I always felt I came up short. Occasionally, I’d be lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of negative comments, but sooner or later some criticism would be directed at my appearance, my behavior, or my opinions. Whatever my mother’s rules were, I could never get them right.

On a recent Thanksgiving, I offered to help my mother in the kitchen, but she told me I wasn’t needed. So I returned to the family room, where everyone else was watching an old movie and enjoying each other’s company.

Within minutes, my mother appeared in the doorway and said she’d thought of something I could do, after all. I obediently followed her to the kitchen, where she asked me to dry and put away a small saucepan that she had washed. It seemed obvious that what she really wanted was some company, and I warmly obliged.

I carefully dried the pot (which was mostly dry already) and placed it, topped with its lid, in the spot she had indicated in a cabinet. After I’d closed the door, my mother reopened it and turned the saucepan so that the handle faced in the proper direction.

Name Withheld

To my father, one rule is all-important: no work on Sunday. In his mind, work includes not only such chores as mowing the lawn or cutting firewood, but also pursuits that might arguably be called hobbies — say, quilting.

When I was growing up, he not only enforced this rule among his family, but tried to keep the neighbors in line, as well. One Sunday afternoon, my family was going for a walk and passed a neighbor who was outside washing her windows. In response to her civil wave, my father called out in a high, hoarse voice, “No work on Sunday!” Once he had her attention, he delivered a second stern “Not on Sunday!” That neighbor has kept her distance from our family ever since.

Name Withheld

At age thirteen, I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental illness characterized by excessively rule-laden behavior. My life since then has been one of torturous, constricting rules that have sucked all the laughter, love, and spontaneity from my existence. These rules originate from nowhere, yet they live inside me. They make no sense, but must always be obeyed.

In high school, I cleaned the combination lock on my locker with spit in order to remove imagined contamination. My illness has forced me to wash my hands in drinking fountains, open bathroom doors with my feet, and do the laundry naked to make sure all my clothes get clean at once. I’ve stood at the sink washing my cracked and bleeding hands for the seventieth or eightieth time in a day, sobbing uncontrollably because I didn’t want to do it, yet I had no choice. For eight years, I never sat on my bed because the part of me that made the rules said it would become dirty if I did. My mind has even forced me to commit blasphemy by thinking the word shit at the very moment the minister places the Communion wafer in my hand. At times, my every muscle has been so mercilessly controlled by compulsions that I’ve found myself sitting in a corner, unable to move.

Even after ten years of recovery, I still wage a daily battle against the rules. Many people like rules, believing they provide protection, order, and safety. I say, Fuck the rules. They almost killed me.

Patti Young
Buffalo, New York

When I was growing up, my mother had specific rules about how I was allowed to spend my time. During the day, when I wasn’t doing homework or practicing the piano, I was expected to complete a long list of household chores. I was a voracious reader, however, and grabbed every chance I could to hide away with a book. I would often secretly lie on my bed and read, and when I heard her coming down the hall toward my room, I’d leap up, yank open a bureau drawer, and start folding and rearranging clothes to appear busy.

Whenever my mother drove into town to run errands, she would always give me a chore to do while she was gone, such as washing the dishes. I would read from the moment she left until I heard the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. Then I would jump up and start washing the dishes. When she saw me at the sink, she would just smile. (If I did my chore first and was reading when she arrived home, I would be in big trouble. All that mattered was that I was working when she walked in.)

At dusk, the housework ended, and I was allowed to read, but I couldn’t turn on any lights until after dark. “Sit close to a window,” my mother would say. Between dinner and bedtime, if I’d done my homework, I could read, but only if she was reading. If she wasn’t, she’d tell me to “stop wasting electricity.” How it wasn’t wasting electricity when she read, I’ll never know.

In my mother’s house, reading was accompanied by a constant feeling of tension and guilt. There was also the feeling of forbidden pleasure, a sense of doing something naughty, but not wanting to stop.

Twenty years later, I still sometimes look up from my book and realize with a thrill that I can go on reading as long as I want.

Julia Morrow
Northridge, California

My first year of teaching was at a small country school in the heart of American coffee country: South Kona, Hawaii. The school’s rules dictated that students were not allowed to wear hats in the classroom because to do so was considered disrespectful to the teacher. On principle, I objected to this rule, but I enforced it anyway, because it was easier just to go along.

One day, a student walked into my classroom wearing a hat. He was a tough little sixth-grader with a reputation for making trouble. When I asked him to take off the hat, he refused, his face defiant. I asked again. He said no. The class watched in silence. It was a stand-off. Then some of the other students began to chant, “Take off your hat!” Before I knew it, the situation was completely out of control.

Finally, the boy exploded. “Fuck you!” he yelled, and he pulled off his hat. The class fell silent. Underneath the hat, he was bald in patches, with scruffy bits of hair sticking up in between, as if someone had tried, with only partial success, to shave his head down to the scalp.

When I saw what he had been hiding, tears streamed down my face. I heard a student whisper, “The teacher’s crying.” I took the boy outside and apologized. We would forget the hat rule in my class, I told him, and from now on he could wear his hat any time he wanted.

Christine Carlson
Kamuela, Hawaii

After I had been working for a year as a nanny for a California millionaire, I graduated to working for a billionaire. His wife was the one who hired me. She was ridiculously thin, but told me she still needed to lose ten pounds from the birth of her daughter.

We sat down in what would be my bedroom — a room twice as big as my parents’ living and dining rooms combined — to go over the rules: always make sure someone knew where I was; carry a pager at all times; treat their home with respect; never physically punish their child. Just when I thought she was through, she added one more: no matter what, I was never to see her husband in his pajamas.

This might seem a simple rule to follow, but the nursery was located such that I would have to walk through the parents’ bedroom to get the baby in the morning. I went to bed that night hoping her husband was an early riser.

The next morning, I heard the baby crying, so I went up to their room and peeked in. They were gone, thank goodness. I hurried in, picked up the baby, and was on my way out when the husband emerged from the bathroom wearing the most ridiculous nightshirt I’d ever seen. It reminded me of an ill-fitting child’s Halloween costume. Mumbling an apology, I exited the room.

Two days later, the wife approached me and told me that, though she loved having me there, her husband was quite angry about the other morning. I explained that it was impossible for me to get the baby in the morning without running the risk that I might see him. She said a six-hundred-dollar-a-week nanny should be smart enough to figure something out.

I gave notice a few hours later, having decided that I preferred millionaires to billionaires.

Sheila Marie Jenca
Los Angeles, California

Growing up in a household with five children, I came to learn that rules existed not to protect my siblings and me, but to protect our young mother’s sanity. Discipline was a way of life in our house, and we accepted the rules for the most part. If we asked why a certain rule existed, the only explanation we ever got was “Because I am the mother, and you are the child.”

Now that I am a parent, I recognize that your child’s behavior is a direct reflection on your parenting abilities. But I’m still not crazy about rules. For example, my three-year-old is allowed to pick her nose and to say “damn” and “hell,” but only at home, not in public.

At first, my mother was shocked to discover how “undisciplined” my daughter’s world was. But after a week’s visit with us, my mother told me that my relationship with my daughter “makes me realize I never enjoyed you kids as much as I should have.”

Melissa Pulsinelli
Denver, Colorado

One day when I was twelve, my twin sister, our two friends, and I decided to cut school. We weren’t bad kids; we just wanted to do something different. The weather was gorgeous, so we spent the whole day at the beach, lying in the sand and constructing anatomically correct sand men and women.

A few days later, our parents received a note from the school. Someone had reported seeing us on the beach. We were to meet with the principal the next afternoon.

Now, my parents knew my sister and I were good students and that one missed day of school wouldn’t hurt us. And they didn’t like the principal, a narrow-minded and rather unpleasant man. But they said we would have to accept whatever punishment he imposed.

The next day, my mother sat with my sister and me in the principal’s office as he sternly lectured us about our behavior and the importance of attending class. He then informed us that our punishment would be one day’s suspension from school. My sister and I looked at each other incredulously. We had assumed that the punishment would be extra schoolwork to catch us up on all the precious learning we’d missed. Finally, my sister, in her typical smart-assed fashion, said, “OK, then. I guess we’ll go to the beach.”

Susannah L.
Berkeley, California

As the eldest of four children, I quickly became a care-giver and baby sitter. I believe this background led to my becoming a midwife as an adult.

I loved the profession and devoted myself to it for many years, breaking most of the rules I’d been taught in nursing school. I attracted clients who wanted to create their own rules in a world becoming increasingly anonymous and technological: vegetarians, Hare Krishnas, organic gardeners, Hasidic Jews, masseuses, fundamentalist Christians, chiropractors, lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, income-tax evaders, Christian Scientists, undocumented aliens, atheists.

Slowly, word got out that I broke too many rules, and I embarked on a long journey through the court system as I attempted to reconcile my practice with the legal medical model. My failure led first to the revocation of my nurse’s license and then to my imprisonment in 1997 for practicing medicine without a license. Now here I sit at fifty-five, paying attention to rules as never before: on your bunks for count; no food from the dining room; off the track before dark — dozens of rules that I accept without question.

When I emerge from prison this year, I look forward to going home with a deeper understanding of rules and my relationship to them. My earlier self-righteousness has diminished. I may still challenge authority, but I will do so with more respect.

Abigail Odam
Warner Springs, California

At sixteen, I attended a residential summer arts program. The counselors — college students involved in the arts themselves — led me to question for the first time certain societal conventions, among them the wearing of brassieres and the shaving of female body hair. It had never before occurred to me that I had any choice in these matters. Within the year, I had sworn off both, and eventually quit wearing make-up as well.

For a decade, I stuck to my decision, proclaiming myself above the vanity that consumed so much of most women’s time and money. I found, however, that I was embarrassed to show my hairy legs in public. In ten years I did not once wear a pair of shorts or a skirt above my ankles. In addition, I became oversensitive to the gazes of men, certain they were able to detect my bralessness and make out my bosom with some kind of radar. I was torturously self-conscious. Still, I remained resolute — and blind to the fact that I had replaced society’s confining rules with a set of my own.

It’s only been two months since I began shaving my legs again, and I’m already feeling a stronger sense of liberation than I ever did when I was breaking the rules.

K. Allison
Northville, Michigan

By my own rule, I had to be out of my apartment from one to five every Sunday afternoon, with no excuses. Otherwise I might spend that time burrowed under the covers, crying along to country music or eating a whole box of See’s candy. Divorce did not become me.

The big obstacle to obeying my rule was that I had no money, which meant that movies, museums, and coffeehouses were out. The Sunday San Francisco Chronicle’s “pink section” came to my rescue. It listed pages of free events, and I spent most Saturday nights circling the possibilities.

I avoided events that promoted “alternative thinking”: no EST groups, hands-on healing, or support groups for me. I discovered that Taiko drummers held rehearsals right down the street, Golden Gate Park had an open tai-chi group, and gallery openings often included free wine and cheese. I even attended a seminar called “Selling with Grace: A Holistic Journey,” designed to alleviate the distress of working in retail.

After eight months, I developed enough of a social life to abandon my Sunday rule. But now and then I think fondly of those long-ago Sunday afternoons when I packed up my courage and went out to get on with my life.

Dede Evans
Palo Alto, California

When my new husband and I moved to the Florida panhandle for his first air-force assignment, I was completely unprepared for the difficulty of the transition. With my college-student ID relegated to the bottom of a drawer, I now answered officially to the last four digits of my husband’s Social Security number. I had no friends and quickly offended the other officers’ wives by finding a well-paying job within two weeks of my arrival, and then having the gall to complain about it.

I couldn’t help it; I hated my job, which forced me to subject my urine to testing, my past to the detailed scrutiny of a security clearance, my body to suits and pantyhose, and my soul to a sterile environment full of gossipy co-workers who took all-day coffee breaks. Not only that, they told racist jokes in public, were unapologetically critical of gays, and thought I was radical for wearing purple nail polish. I was shocked into intellectual hiding, scared to reveal how deep my thought crimes went.

Then a writer friend sent me a book about creativity. It became my lifeline and somewhat of an obsession. I began waking each day at 5 A.M. to write my “morning pages” before work — rambling free-association, mostly about how miserable I was. This book gave me permission to speak my mind without censure, to nurture my long-lost creative dreams, to be whimsical and bizarre. It also encouraged me to embrace a spirituality I had long since abandoned.

I followed the book’s twelve-week program religiously, opening my mind as wide as possible. I started to question the unspoken rules I lived by — such as “no singing in public” — and did my best to bend and even break them. My motto was “I may seem crazy, but this is the sanest I’ve ever been!”

I joined a writer’s group and began writing stories. After a fruitless search for a better job, I decided to quit and pursue writing full time. I hadn’t written more than a handful of stories and poems, none of them published, but one of the book’s rules was “Leap, and the net will appear.” I leapt.

Sleep took second place to my new career. If I had an intense dream, I awoke completely to write it down. If I couldn’t sleep, that also was an excuse to get up and write. I soon became unable to sleep, but I didn’t care; I was in a constant state of inspiration. It occurred to me that sleep was one of those fuddy-duddy rules that I could live without. When my appetite dwindled, too, I figured maybe food wasn’t so necessary either, so I stopped eating. Through a rigorous process of inductive reasoning, I concluded that if the rules about sleep and food were wrong, then death, too, must not be an inevitable condition. I called and e-mailed everyone I knew to let them in on the good news.

I broke more rules. I said exactly what I wanted at all times. When my husband started getting on my nerves, I called an ex-boyfriend (with whom I wasn’t even on speaking terms) and told him I missed sex with him and would leave my husband if he gave the word.

After two weeks in a mental ward and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I started to believe again that not every rule could be broken.

Name Withheld

As a naturalist and environmental educator at a nature center, I am responsible for enforcing the park’s rules. This is probably the most painful part of my job, as it makes me feel like a policeman. The rules include no alcohol or drugs in the park, no dogs allowed off their leash, and no walking off the trails. But the hardest rule to enforce is the one against feeding the geese in the lake — an offense punishable by a three-hundred-dollar fine.

For generations, people visited this park specifically to feed the ducks and geese, and it was not uncommon to see twenty-five people at a time tossing armloads of bread to the birds. Consequently, the lake became home to hundreds of geese, many more than the habitat could support. We had children slipping and falling in goose dung, pets eating it and becoming sick, and, worst of all, smaller animals in the lake dying because of the pollution caused by the droppings.

Aside from all this, feeding the geese is just not good for them. They have a difficult time digesting highly processed bread, and the feeding trains them to become overly dependent on people and sometimes leads to aggressive behavior.

Despite these facts, it’s difficult to convince people of the importance of the no-feeding rule. “Where’s your badge?” they’ll say, or, “You’re going to starve the geese to death!”

Last week, while on vacation in London, I was thoroughly enjoying a Sunday-morning stroll through a picturesque park when I rounded a corner and spotted some people feeding bread to a boisterous group of geese. With a sense of urgency, I began to rush over and tell them to stop. Only at the last second did their British accents remind me where I was.

Eddy Rubin
Upper Makefield, Pennsylvania

Ann made it a rule in our relationship that I always be honest with her. “Don’t tell me a lie because you think the truth will hurt me,” she said. “Let me feel sad or angry. I’ll get over it.”

In my twenty-year marriage I’d always been afraid of giving my spouse bad news. She’d followed the ancient dictum of “kill the messenger.” So it was refreshing to think that I could be totally honest with a woman.

One Friday, I had a miserable day at work. All I wanted to do was to go home and climb into bed, but Ann and I had made plans to go out for sushi. I anguished over how to break the news to her. Finally, I just blurted it out. She was disappointed but not upset. It felt great to be so honest and up front. A new day had dawned. I can do this, I thought.

One cold Saturday night in February, we went out for dinner and a movie. As we sat in the nearly empty theater, the Mexican meal I’d eaten began to work its way through my intestines, and I farted silently. Ann turned to me and whispered, “Did you fart?”

“No,” I answered reflexively.

Ann’s body language changed ever so slightly, and I knew I was doomed. As we walked across the snow-covered parking lot after the movie, she looked at me with fire in her eyes and said, “I have one rule that is greater than any of my other rules: One must always own up to one’s own farts. Always!”

Needless to say, I spent that night alone in my cold bed, wondering what, if anything, I could do to set things right.

The next time I saw Ann, I managed to convince her that I was truly sorry. We made up, and she invited me to spend the night. The following morning, I happened to fart in the shower. Remembering my painful lesson, I called out, “Ann!”

“What is it, honey?”

“I farted.”

Short pause. “Thanks for letting me know.”

Amazing! I’d never realized that a man and a woman could come to such an understanding.

After that, when we played tennis, I would often stop and say, “Ann.” “What is it, honey?” she’d ask. “Farted.” I’d even call her from my office to let her know when I farted. Of course, I suspected this might be getting on her nerves, but she said nothing.

One night, we were back at the same movie theater, a full house this time, and there arose an opportunity for me to prove my honesty once and for all. After a particularly pungent fart, I turned to Ann and stated proudly, for all in our vicinity to hear, “I’m the one who farted.”

Later, as I held the car door open for her, she hugged me and said, “Honey, I’m going to change the rule just for you.”

Thomas L. D’Angelo
Riverhead, New York

None of us told our parents that the teacher we all adored was often drunk when he drove us places. We never made a pact not to tell, but we knew that, if anyone told, we’d all stop going on overnight field trips.

Now, though my daughter and I have been over it many times, I’m not convinced that she will tell me if she’s been riding with someone who has been drinking. Sometimes, for teenagers, the written rules have less power than the unspoken ones. I’m terrified that, like me, my daughter will also play by those rules.

Anjelina Citron
Bellingham, Washington

My co-worker Fred makes a phone call every afternoon between 1:30 and 2:30. That’s 4:30 to 5:30 on the east coast — the end of her workday. He talks quietly and for a long time with his back to the door and a smile on his face. I wonder if he realizes everyone in the office sees this. Or does he know and just not care?

When a trip east falls through, Fred becomes desperate. He recently told Jim he would like to attend any available training seminars in Washington, D.C. When Jim pointed out that the travel expenses would eat up the rest of Fred’s budget for the year, Fred said that he would manage.

Some of my co-workers have seen the woman Fred is in love with; the rest of us have only heard reports. We all know Fred’s wife and two children, however.

Other women have gotten Fred’s attention in the past, but this time it’s different. When our headquarters in D.C. sent some representatives to our office, Fred took them out to lunch and begged them for a job in the capital. Fred used to hate D.C.

I am disappointed in Fred. He seems so selfish, and so naive to think another woman can fulfill his dreams. I am also puzzled by my concern for his behavior. Although I have known him for years, our friendship has never gone outside the office. So why do I care that he is planning to run away from his family?

Perhaps because I have been there myself, looking over the edge, thinking I deserve more than the small life I have, with its small moments of joy. I have lain awake nights reasoning that there is nothing wrong with innocent gestures like hugs, or small kisses, or occasional hand holding. But then when you have had the small kiss and have felt his arms around you, you don’t care what happens after that, because it feels so right.

Name Withheld

At twelve, I went to Florida to visit my grandmother in her tiny home. Her little back yard sizzled with the scent of oranges hanging heavily from the limbs of her two trees. Aloe sprouted in thick bunches along the foundation of the house, and she spread its juice lovingly on my sunburn after a trip to the beach. The cheery mailman winked as he delivered the mail into my grandmother’s hand at the same time each morning. Neighbors waved whenever we came and went. Nestled in its safe and hospitable neighborhood, her house was a little bit of paradise.

Recently, my aunt’s house, which is down the street from my grandmother’s, came on the market, and a good friend of mine was interested in buying it. When I told my father this, I learned an ugly little secret: There’s a clause attached to the deed of my grandmother’s picturesque property, where he now resides after her death. This clause states that persons of color shall not purchase the house. Paradise, it seems, is a white-only club.

My father told me this after it became clear to him that my friend was black. The implication was that the deed to my aunt’s house contains this evil little clause, too.

I’m not twelve years old anymore. My grandmother’s bigotry was revealed to me years ago, to my great disappointment and shame. But I’d expected more from my father. “I am in the South now,” he wrote. “You have to remember that, as much as you and I might feel that there is no difference between individuals, people don’t think the same way down here.”

Stunned, I wrote back, “What does the document actually say? How can that be legal?” But I knew what he was describing wasn’t legal. What I really needed to know was: Will you break the rule, Dad?

Name Withheld

For years, my friend and I went out drinking at least twice a week. The evening was never over until we were both staggering. We were more than just drinking buddies, though. We were best friends.

Finally, I faced up to the fact that I had to quit drinking or die. I’d seen other relationships wither when the alcohol ran out, and I was afraid of losing his friendship, too. But I was more afraid of dying.

I’ve been sober almost five years now, and he’s still my best friend. We go out to dinner and ball games and talk on the phone a couple of times a week. When we get together for an evening, we share jokes and complain about our wives, our kids, our jobs. Except for our beverages of choice, nothing has changed.

When he talks, I look into his eyes and study his jawline, his thickly muscled neck, his stubbly face. I wonder what it would be like to feel his stubble on my cheek, to rub the muscles in his neck. I wonder what it would be like to pull his face to mine and kiss his lips.

Sometimes he looks at me as if he knows my thoughts, but I keep them to myself. There are some rules I don’t dare break.

Name Withheld

At my San Francisco high school in 1967, the dress code required girls to wear either a skirt or a dress. Not fair, I thought. I couldn’t walk very well in my knee-length straight skirt, and my old box-pleated plaid was too short to cover up where I’d mended my stocking with a bit of nail polish. I had clean jeans in my closet, but I was stuck wearing a skirt, a blouse, and stockings. To make matters worse, I had to walk eighteen blocks to school and back in pointy-toed flats. Boys brushed by me with books on their hips and their feet in comfortable shoes, while I took half steps, slip-slapping the pavement. By the time I got to school, the second bell had already rung.

The next day, I wore jeans in protest, and the principal lectured me on what was, and wasn’t, ladylike. When it turned out I didn’t have a coat or sweatshirt to tie around my waist, she actually had me escorted out of the building.

The following Monday at school, I distributed dozens of notes that said, “Wear pants to school on Friday. Pass it on!” On Tuesday I saw one taped to the bathroom wall. On Wednesday a stranger passed one to me. By Thursday my notes had been joined by others.

That Friday, I ran the eighteen blocks in my Keds, with jingle bells tied to the laces. I arrived, windblown and breathless, and saw a parade of wild fashions: big pants with little vests, overalls with tank tops, tie-dyed carpenter pants with paint-splattered high-tops, Army greens with canvas boots, velvet bell-bottoms with leather seats, hip-huggers with extra-wide belts, ripped denims with star-spangled patches, hot pants with fish-net stockings, and even a guy in a wig wearing a strapless red dress!

They couldn’t send everyone home; we had changed the rules.

Constance Bailey
Boiceville, New York

After fifty years of trial and error, I now live by one rule alone: listen for the small voice inside, and do whatever it tells me to do, no matter how unsettling, improbable, frightening, difficult, or seemingly crazy.

Gretchen Newmark
Portland, Oregon