Sunday, March 6, 2011

On being stubborn

I just finished reading a fascinating memoir called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua. In it, she's determined -- a positive spin on the word stubborn -- to be what she calls a "Chinese mother."

This means her children will enjoy no sleepovers, no play dates and no excuse for coming in second place. They are expected to become musical prodigies, practicing hours on end.

Though it may sound to our spoiled society ears like "Mommy Dearest," Chua's heart is in the right place, and she truly believes her way is best for her children. It seems to work until Chua quickly learns her younger daughter shares the same stubborn streak.

I can relate to that relationship. My dad was determined, too, when he was raising me. Oh, not to make me any kind of superstar -- just to get me to do things like say "please" and "thank you." Sounds simple enough, I know, but trust me, it was a lot harder than you think. I remember.

One particular time stands out. I was 4 years old and we were on our way to Jacksonville, Fla., to visit my dad's friend, Andy. I loved Andy and his wife and always looked forward to this trip, in part because each morning I'd wake up to see tiny little frogs sticking to the sliding glass door. Hey, I was 4!

It had been a long drive. I can remember the hot air blowing in the open windows of our green Pontiac, with its headliner flapping annoyingly in the wind. Daddy didn't believe in stopping, which meant we knew better than to drink more than a sip of water. So, by the time we arrived, I was hot, a little grumpy and very, very thirsty.

Andy was still at work at the sporting goods store he owned, so we stopped there first. Kindly and mild-mannered, he greeted us and gave us a quick tour of his store, and, to my delight, pulled out a quarter, dropped it into an old-fashioned Coca-Cola machine, and out plunked an 8 oz. ice-cold bottle of sheer heaven.

My mouth watered, and I reached out to grab it at the same time my dad said, "Tell Andy thank you, Leigh."

For some reason unbeknownst to me, instead of simply saying "thank you" and drinking a long refreshing gulp of Coke, like something you'd see in a commercial, I shook my head and said, "No."

"Leigh, he bought you a Coke. Tell him thank you."

Again, I shook my head.

"It's OK," Andy insisted. "She doesn't have to."

"Yes, she does," said my dad, and then he drew a line in the sand with his next words: "We are going to sit here all day until you say thank you."

My dad and I settled in for a head-to-head battle. He glared at me, and I glared at him. And we waited for what seemed like an eternity to all parties involved. I can't imagine what it was like for my dad, a 200 lb. world-champion weightlifter, to have to take on a 45 lb. sassy blonde, but here we were.

The clock on the wall ticked. Andy pulled at his collar uncomfortably. Sweat beaded off our foreheads. Ultimately, I caught a glimpse of the bottle out of the corner of my eye, and I broke.

"Thank you," I said. Everyone sighed with relief. It was probably the best tasting Coke I've ever had, though if it hadn't been for sheer thirst, we may still be there. Later, Andy told my dad that we were two of the most stubborn people he'd ever seen in his life.

I love this story because it's so true. As time passed, I learned stubbornness wasn't all bad. Stubborn is what gets a person from homelessness to success, as in the movie "Pursuit of Happyness." Stubbornness is what pushes a single mom to work during the day and stay up late into the night to study so she can get off welfare; stubbornness is what makes a person get out of bed and continue to live after an unspeakable tragedy has taken place. I marvel at it.

Of course, there's always a flip side. Stubborn people learn most things the hard way (of course, how can anyone tell them differently?). My dad used to tell me there was an easy way and a hard way, and I could choose. I had no idea what he meant. I saw my way. To me, that was it.

I'd like to think that now I'm a little more open and less stubborn. But I'm probably not. Recently, my family went hiking over some rather treacherous rocks, and as I followed my husband, he tried to helpfully show me where to place my feet.

I responded by saying, "Sometimes I want to make my own steps."

And, right or wrong, that's what humans have to do, though it may mean falling down and getting hurt. And when you do, hopefully, there's someone who loves you standing by with a cold Coke. Just don't forget to say thank you.

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