I Dare You to Give Me an Ultimatum

My first girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I didn’t go to church with her. I almost felt sick. I was in the 17-year-old equivalent of love with her. I thought my brain would explode if I didn’t see her every day, I was addicted to our naïve and frankly pathetic hanky-panky, and I always had a date without thinking about it too hard. Enduring two hours a week of hellfire and ladies’ fellowship bake sales didn’t seem like that big a price.

And yet the ultimatum tore at me. It wasn’t that I disliked church so much. I just disliked my girlfriend using love like a club to chase me into the pews. I didn’t know what to do. So I didn’t do anything, and in the end my sweet little flower of femininity broke up with me in a spectacular brush-off, in the school auditorium with all our friends watching. That was my reward for being unable to deal with an ultimatum.

I wandered through the next several years in befuddled incompetence where ultimatums were concerned. I mismanaged girlfriend ultimatums, which landed me in places like the Flower Show and theaters playing Annie Hall. I botched some friend ultimatums that led to all the fixtures torn off my bathroom walls and a singularly unwise loan to purchase a tenor saxophone. I made disasters out of ultimatums at work and at school. I don’t even want to talk about ultimatums that take place in bars.

This misery continued for six years. Then my nephew turned five years old and began educating me in the ways of ultimatums. He learned to master them because he was always in the middle of one. Most of us try to avoid the things, but he courted them. If he wanted a thing to be true, then some triviality like the opinion of the rest of the human race could not deter him. And he handled ultimatums with a tactical brilliance that would have sent Hannibal fleeing back to Carthage to live out his days as a turnip farmer.

As an example, say my nephew wants to play with his grandmother’s antique cigarette box shaped like an elephant, and he picks it up. His mother, knowing that within two minutes he will annihilate the thing like Hiroshima, takes it away from him and tells him no. He considers her opinion on the subject to be without merit, so he picks it up again. She once more takes it away from him and then issues her ultimatum: “Leave the elephant alone, or you’ll be punished.”

I recall seeing my nephew assess such situations as carefully as Tiger Woods on the 17th green. In those days we had no such thing as “time out.” We did have “sitting in the corner,” which was the same thing except for the beating you got on the way from the cigarette box to the corner. So he knew the stakes. He could avoid punishment and forever be denied playing with, and possibly destroying, that cool elephant cigarette box. I would probably have done something stupid like waiting until mom was in the kitchen before playing with the cigarette box. Then when I smashed it into splinters I’d receive punishment that was worse by an order of magnitude. My five-year-old nephew was fortunately smarter than me.

Let us return to my example. My nephew now stands there gazing at the cigarette box, while his mom hovers above him, a thundercloud of menace. He knows that the ultimatum game is a war, not a battle. If he gives in now, he turns himself into a slave, owned by the threat of being sent to the corner. He’ll never get to play with that elephant cigarette box. And his mom may try the same ultimatum trick to keep him away from the grandfather clock, the tacky ceramic lamp in the hall, and the M&Ms in the top of the pantry that he can reach by using a kitchen chair and a broom handle. That’s nothing but the crassest sort of defeatism.

By once more laying his sticky fingers on that elephant he gets a trip to the corner, augmented by some frustrated whacks from his mom. But he’s also declaring that punishment will not deter him, and that he will poke any ultimatum in the eye. Maybe he can’t play with the elephant cigarette box today, but at least he can accept punishment on his terms. And he may be punished tomorrow. But this is war, and tomorrow is another battle over that stupid elephant. He’ll probably lose that one too, but after a dozen or a hundred ultimatums his exhausted mom will lose the will to fight. She may only send him to the corner for a minute with a half-hearted swat. A few dozen more ultimatums later his mom will be completely broken and not care about the damned cigarette box as long as he doesn’t burn the house down.

That’s what my five-year-old nephew taught me. When they give you an ultimatum, poke the bastards in the eye, take the punishment on your terms, and outlast the sons of bitches. You do anything else at the risk of becoming their chattel. And at the risk of skulking out of the school auditorium with a stupid look on your face.

"Ho Chi Minh has nothing on me."

Photo from Bluebird of Bitterness, which is damn funny.

4 Comments

  1. geewits says:

    Just curious: Was that R. or J.? My guess would be R.

    1. bfmccurry says:

      Aw, if I told that would be cheating!

  2. Aim says:

    Love the title. I’m sitting here looking out at the snow blowing sideways, thinking about the complicated relationship I have with my roommate, and “ultimatum” popped into my head.
    What a ridiculous concept in negotiation tactics. And, why is it more often used by women?
    Anyway I typed “dare vs ultimatum” in the Google box and your essay appeared.
    I like it. Again, perfect title. Thank you
    Aim

    1. Bill McCurry says:

      Thank you, I’m glad you like it. You’re so right about ultimatums. They start wars and end marriages. And as I learned, they are not an effective way to get a raise.

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