The Misunderstood Art of Mischief – The New York Times

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Motherhood taught me how to appreciate tiny gestures toward nonconformism.
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In kindergarten last school year, my son received an assignment to draw a portrait of his family. He sketched an abstract shape, to start. It vaguely resembled an elephant, and I told him so. “It is,” he said, and then his expression grew naughty — he had an idea, just then. He drew a little form in front of it, which he said was himself. He and the elephant were both pink, his favorite color. The elephant appeared to be shouting with joy. He uploaded the image to the school’s online learning platform. “This is me and my elephant,” he said in an attached recording. “I rode on him once. It’s so fun!”
This tiny gesture toward nonconformism — I admired it. As a child, I used to be the one who complained to the teacher when others broke with homework orthodoxy. My sister and I, children of Indian immigrants, were raised in a small town in Saskatchewan; achieving the professional and personal greatness for which we were destined, according to our mother, would require absolute adherence to the rules of the academic game. That approach served me well enough in the years that followed; now here I am, a mortgage-paying, child-rearing adult, great enough. But watching my own son, I recognized something I didn’t as a child — it was original, this willfully mischievous reinterpretation of the assignment. There was some artistry involved.
Mischief has a reputation for causing destruction. The word itself derives from the Old French “meschief,” which refers to misfortune, harm, injury. The Cat in the Hat turns up and makes a mess just when the mother is due home. Paul McCartney’s troublemaking grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night” persuades Ringo to go explore on his own, putting the band at risk of missing its important gig. But then, the Cat doesn’t merely make a mess — he also balances a fishbowl on a rake while holding a full birthday cake atop his head. Paul’s grandfather doesn’t merely put the gig in danger — he also delivers some of the most captivating, delightful scenes of the film, as Ringo joins up with a 10-year-old fellow wanderer on the banks of the Thames River. The best mischief makers know what they’re doing: The destruction they visit upon their targets is always in service of some grander aesthetic purpose.
For a long time, I have kept a mental list of the tiniest little mischiefs. In one, you buy the exact same toothbrush as the person with whom you share a bathroom and put it in your shared toothbrush holder; when your cohabitor notices and asks about it, act as if you don’t understand what the problem is. Or if you both wear contacts, wait until he’s asleep and then switch your contacts to his contact case and his to yours.
If mischief is aesthetic — if it’s art — then it’s valuable for its own sake. But it’s more than that too; it can be a source of stealth power in times of apparent powerlessness. It occurs to me only now that my own habit of collecting mischiefs actually started during my stickler phase, in elementary school. Being an eczematous child of immigrants, a social outcast, I lay in bed at night devising complex, Rube Goldberg-like plans to confound my clear-skinned, white classmates. Once complete, my mischief would have no apparent author. In a situation that forbids explicit expressions of intemperance or protest, mischief is the perfect solution.
I had a classmate back then whose disdain for me felt palpable: She excluded me from the group, generally ignored my existence. One year, our teacher celebrated each of us in turn by putting a poster on the wall with one of our names on it, on which everyone wrote words of affirmation and encouragement. When I thought no one was watching, I wrote on this classmate’s poster, J___ is rude.
Mischief has often been a creative, anarchic weapon of defense among the marginalized: free, adaptable, difficult to control. The ur-trickster of American culture, Brer Rabbit, was derived from Southern Black folk tales passed down between generations of enslaved people; characters like him, the scholar Emily Zobel Marshall has written, could outwit plantation slavery “using some of the few means available to them; their cunning, intelligence and linguistic wit.” Other traditions have their own folk heroes: There’s Coyote, who appears in stories from numerous Native American cultures; Anansi, from West African myths; Maui the Polynesian; Loki the Scandinavian.
In my favorite trickster stories, in myth and in life, mischief even has a restorative power — its apparent badness eventually giving way to reveal an inherent idealism of spirit. When Ringo goes rogue, he gets his camera wet in the river; then he’s chastised by a police officer for throwing a brick. When he first meets the 10-year-old, they start out tussling. But in all this chaos, you get the sense that Ringo is, for once, moving through the world according to his own aesthetics, no one else’s.
Ringo’s parade reminds me of the way my son, during a kindergarten spent largely online, made a point of interpreting so many of his assignments with unruly originality. Mischief shows us other ways to be in the world, ways we might not have thought of otherwise. Back in elementary school, my note about J.’s rudeness was found out. I still remember her expression when my teacher forced me to apologize: not rude at all, but bereft, stricken. She hadn’t known I’d considered her rude; she hadn’t considered herself rude. And from then on, through the rest of elementary school, J. became very kind.
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