Saturday, May 12, 2012

On Strike

Agreeableness can only take you so far, and sometimes being a good girl is a bad idea. It’s the person who sits down, holds tight and refuses to budge, the one who says “no more,” who usually ends up living a life that always seems to have the extra sprinkles on top.

Mary Katherine is a great example of a good girl who goes bad when necessary. She perfected the idea of the General Strike several years ago, when we were visiting Disney World, which is the ultimate “Fun, Dammit” location. Everyone you look, parents are beating hot, crumpled, weeping children, shouting that it’s time for fun, dammit, because they already bought the 24-hour-Hopper-Pooper ticket and no one is leaving until they squeeze every last morsel of activity from it. The whole place feels less like an amusement park than a hostage situation.

Turns out Mary Katherine, age five, thought so, too. After two days of humid trudging in the Park That Won’t Let You Go Home Before Midnight, Day Three dawned, and I tried to rouse her. Consulting my list, I informed her that we had several super-magical rides & adventures to tick off our Required Fun Chores before lunch. Calmly and sweetly, she informed me that she wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m staying in this bed,” she said. “I’m going to color in my color book and watch movies and not leave the hotel.” I gasped. As a lifelong rules follower, I could only stand back and admire this tyke. She was standing up to the Disney Industrial Complex. I did everything but applaud. And then I slid into bed with her and fired up the DVD player.

I’ve always found that moment to be a touchstone for me, a time I can return to as an example that you don’t have to be big or loud or mean to get what you want. You just have to be very, very sure. I spend most of my days making sure that everyone else has enough napkins for their Life Banquet, but every now and then, I try to employ a bit of the Mary Katherine Method in my own world.

My most recent example happened in Beijing. There were four of us following Emma around like baby ducks, confident that she knew what she was doing, since that’s what she kept telling us. Most of the time, things went well, but it turned out that she was a Mamma Duck who liked adrenaline a little bit too much for anyone’s good. The first day we left our hotel, she marched us across the traffic-signal-free equivalent of a 10-lane highway, one where cars were making rapid, screeching turns into our oncoming path. 

It was nerve-wracking, she admitted when I protested from the other side, but it was just The Way Things Are in China. By Day Two, I was beginning to break into a cold sweat the minute I was in the hotel lobby, just imagining the terror outside. The next day, I announced, “I am not going to cross that street again. I suggest we try turning in the other direction when we leave the hotel and see if there is a traffic light somewhere in this city so that we can cross more calmly.” 

Emma scoffed and told me that I wasn’t being appropriately Chinese. “If I have to spend the rest of this trip in the hotel, I will,” I said, “but I am not crossing that street, in that spot, again.” I had learned the secret from Mary Katherine – know exactly what you need and be very, very sure.

When we left the hotel the next morning, Emma avoided the speedway and allowed us to turn left. Within two blocks, we  found an underground pedestrian throughway that led directly to our subway stop. Emma shrugged. I could tell that it didn’t seem like as much fun, and that she thought I was soft and weak. Too bad, I thought, as I reached for Mary Katherine’s hand in the stinky and safe tunnel. I had finally learned how to go on strike, and I was feeling proud of myself.

I thought back to that day with Mary Katherine at Disney World.  I had asked her if she wanted to have breakfast and she’d warily said, “If I have to take a shuttle bus to breakfast,  I’m not hungry.” We’d walked -- on too-wide paths, past overly artificial lagoons, but still. We had lingered over waffles and a Barbie coloring book, just laughing. I’d bought her an enormous and impractical lollipop in the gift shop and told her it was her breakfast dessert. We’d watched more television, lolled in the pool and napped through a thunderstorm. It was the day she wanted to have, and she wasn’t afraid to insist that she be allowed to have it. 

It's a lesson I'm still learning. But every now and then, I have enough strength to remember that what seems inevitable, often isn't. And it just takes one "no" -- a very, very sure "no" -- to shut it down and start over.

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