No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

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Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.

When Expectations (Always) Fail to Become Reality

One of my favorite scenes in the movie (500) Days of Summer is titled “Expectations vs. Reality.” It follows Tom, the main character, as he goes to his recently ex-girlfriend Summer’s house for a party. He anticipates that the party will rekindle their love and that they will end the night together again, but he soon realizes that it is actually her engagement party. The scene shows Tom’s expectations on one side and the reality of the situation on the other. Rather than end in romance like Tom hopes, the night ends when he leaves early because he cannot handle it.

Optimism is a funny thing. It sounds fantastic in theory–always look on the bright side of life, glass half-full, silver linings, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, etc. A life lived expecting the best from every person and every situation seems bulletproof. Everything is peachy and nothing hurts.

Except sometimes optimism doesn’t work. Sometimes it causes more heartbreak and disappointment than pessimism ever could because sometimes expectations simply cannot match reality. In any situation that involves two people, one person’s optimism can never compensate for the other’s lack of reciprocation. While the pessimist may foresee the worst and prepare accordingly, the optimist will not accept that awful possibility. So when it inevitably becomes reality, the optimist feels crushed beyond repair. Something that initially seemed impossible becomes all too real, and the optimist is blindsided by the concurrent feelings.

Tom is an optimist. He wanted Summer back and assumed that it would happen that night. He could not predict that she was engaged because she was the only one for him, so he must be the only one for her. The idealized version of their relationship convinced him that they would end up together. Anything else was simply not an option. When the situation’s absoluteness became apparent, the only thing he could do was flee.

There is a term for the uncomfortable and agonizing feeling that accompanies failed expectations: cognitive dissonance. When our brains attempt to process two conflicting truths, especially when one challenges all previous beliefs, we are left to decide which holds more value. Tom enters the party knowing that he loves Summer, but she is engaged. He cannot immediately accept this information because all previous evidence suggests that if she would not marry Tom, she would not marry anyone. Cognitive dissonance instills an uneasiness in him that he can only alleviate with time.

I have been victim to the soul-crushing realization that the romanticized moments I imagine will never actualize far too many times. I have set my hopes beyond reasonable doubt and dreamed massive dreams because like Tom, I always expect the best. I know that in at least one parallel universe, these dreams are possible. If I could control the situation, I could ensure that my absurd expectations ensue. And if there were not other people involved with complicated stories and complex emotions, then everything would be fine. But cognitive dissonance is my nemesis, and the resulting desperation takes over.

I am certain that the despair I feel upon failed expectations would be far less poignant without my relentless optimism. But I am also certain that the ecstasy that accompanies exceeded expectations would be far duller. I allow myself to experience the full spectrum of emotions because when I do, I open myself to the profundity of humanity. These feelings make me mortal, and my life would be meaningless without the extremes on both ends. Cognitive dissonance can be unbearable, but its bite means that I felt something.

Tom did not get Summer back that night, but it hurt because he loved her so deeply. And the authenticity of that feeling is all that matters.

Reconnecting with Society through Books

Books have always been my thing. I started reading the Harry Potter series in first grade and did not stop until a week after the Deathly Hallows release in 2007. In between books, I racked up hours devouring Sharon Creech novels and other fantasy series. This helped secure my annual victory in “Tons of Reading,” an elementary school class competition to determine the most avid reader.

By high school, I had read Fahrenheit 451 and was well into Gone with the Wind. But then life became busy and my pleasure reading was limited. Still, I managed to read classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through my classes, and I savored every word.

But in my interactions with other readers I have noticed a glaring hole in my book repertoire. I have not read some of the most essential stories that seem to grace every must-read modern classics list. Against all odds, I have missed Kesey and Steinbeck and Vonnegut. I have not even read the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. When I fail to effortlessly quote and discuss these books–due to the fact that I have not read them–I feel inadequate as a self-proclaimed reader.

Imagine if a runner did not know about Steve Prefontaine or Joan Benoit Samuelson or Mary Decker Slaney. These people defined the sport of American middle distance and distance running. They paved the way for every distance runner that would follow. And they should be celebrated accordingly. Of course I know all about these runners because running is such a massive part of my life, but so is reading.

Alas, there is only one solution, and that is to read these books. So that is what I will do. I now present my list of Top 10 Books I Must Read Before I can Consider Myself a Fully Functioning Member of Society:

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1972)

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

3. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964)

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

9. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

As I compiled this list, I noticed an alarmingly common theme: all but one were published within a 20 year period between 1952 and 1972. This also happens to be the time period where I belong. My father recently said, “You are a flower child.” I am confident that these books will allow me to better understand my flower child roots and the era in which they began.

Surprise! I have already started my reading journey. In a recent week of strikingly sunny weather, I laid outside and read about war and time travel. That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut, I can now say “So it goes” without fear that my fraud will be detected. And I am well on my way to understanding Ken Kesey a little bit more through the eyes of Chief and McMurphy.

I will track the rest of my progress here and add a few thoughts as I finish the big ten. But for now, I will delve back into the Oregon insane asylum until I emerge one step closer to fully functioning personhood.