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tennis anyoneIn my endless effort to find something I am good at and enjoy doing, I signed up for eight weeks of adult group tennis lessons. I am not particularly athletic or graceful so I struggle to find activities that provide exercise without making me miserable, or boring me to death. The class started out well and I was having a great time. I completely didn’t care that I was obviously the worst in the class and I thought for a minute that this might be my new “thing.” Ever since my husband passed away, giving me evenings to fill, I have been searching for a “thing.” Then the class warm-up ended and we began exercises that pitted us against each other. That is when I noticed the uptight, aggressive women in their little tennis skirts who were out for blood.

You know who I’m talking about. There is one in every exercise class. It’s the woman who is bouncing up and down, flailing her arms around when the aerobics instructor says to march in place. It’s the girl in boot camp who is running two inches behind you because you are not running fast enough; the woman in circuit training who has her treadmill on an elevation of 14 and is climbing to the clouds while the rest of us are struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I can’t stand those people. Seriously, I quit Zumba because of those people.

So now I found myself in a tennis class full of women who were confusing a recreational adult education class with Wimbledon. They bounced up and down while waiting for the ball like they saw the Williams sisters do, and then slammed it in my face. Until this point, my tennis career had consisted of friendly meet-ups with my work friends who are as athletically challenged as I am. We are pleased with ourselves if we hit the ball directly to each other and cheer if we can keep the ball in play for three hits in a row. If we make anyone actually run for the ball, we apologize. “Sorry! That was out of bounds!” And here was the Mean Girls squad slamming balls down and high-fiving each other. I wanted to cry, but instead I got angry at every shot I missed and kept looking at my watch, waiting for the torture end. Did I mention that this was my first lesson?

When I was a kid, my younger brother and I were home-schooled. To keep us active and interacting with other kids, my parents put us in extra-curricular activities. We did everything from pottery to oil painting, ice skating to tap dancing. They must have spent a fortune keeping us entertained, but they were determined to let us try everything so that we could find our “thing,” that one passion we could be really good at. I’m obviously still looking. My brother was an art major and elected the Student Body President at a top 25 university. In high school he played basketball, volleyball and football, and got up at 5 a.m. every day to practice with his swim team. So you can imagine how obnoxious I thought he was when he was twelve and I was fourteen and we were taking our home-school lessons. He had a competitive side that made him successful at everything and made me want to smack him. I was born without the competitive gene. When we started a new class together, like horseback riding, my little brother would outshine me and I would instantly lose interest. That is how he ended up the captain of the university polo team and I became a writer.

Ever since my alarming tennis experience I have been thinking about my childhood and how different my brother and I turned out. We were raised the same way but developed very differently. Do your parents have any control over your competitive nature, or are you born with it? Does nature decide how much you want to beat that stranger on the other side of the net, or can a softer competitive attitude be nurtured? Should it be? You have to compete to be successful in this survival-of-the-fittest world. How do you teach a child to be competitive, but not too competitive? The great philosopher Dr. Phil once said, “Make sure your kids know that you are proud of them for playing the game and trying hard, and that they don’t always need to win. Also make sure your children are proud of themselves from the inside out, and that they don’t always need someone to validate them.” That is great advice but sounds a lot easier said than done.  How do you teach a kid to excel at soccer but then convince them that they don’t need to win?  It’s a tough job.

After my disastrous tennis class, I decided to try a different night to see if the people were nicer and more my speed. I walked onto the court during warm ups and surveyed the scene. A man standing in front of me “passed wind” for a good 15 seconds. A mentally-challenged boy was trying to take out a bush with his racquet.  An elderly Korean woman tripped over her own feet and fell down on the court. The next hour was fun and happy and I loved it. I had finally found my place in the tennis world and I actually learned something. I realize not everyone is as completely devoid of a competitive nature as I have become, but I wish people would give it some thought before they slam a ball in the face of some complete stranger who is just trying to have fun and avoid another night in front of the TV, missing her husband.

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how to be a good auntThere are many benefits to being in your 30s and not having children. For example, when a child is screaming in one room, I can remove myself to another and pour a glass of wine. I can watch things on television besides Thomas the Tank Engine. I can also count the number of diapers I have changed on one hand. When I am around friends with babies I usually announce that there are perks to being a childless widow, and not wiping poo off their offspring’s butts is one of them. I have made a few exceptions for my niece and nephews who have on occasion given me no choice by screaming from the toilet that they are all done when no one else is around. One time I pretended not to hear anything in hopes that it would go away and my nephew came out to the living room and bent over for me. In an impressive act of cunning, however, I have proven so bad at the wiping process that when I appear I usually get a, “No, I want Mommy to do it.” Genius.

On one family vacation I decided to give my brother and sister-in-law an afternoon off and babysat four-year-old  Rider and two-year-old Rose. I adore them and I thought it would be a piece of cake. We’ll go to McDonalds. Kids like McDonalds. Getting them strapped into their car seats was a little like wrangling goats and it took me ten minutes just to get into the car. We went to the restaurant singing something about our ears hanging low. My brother has a 6-CD changer that has nothing more highbrow in it than pondering whether you can tie your ears into a knot. Upon arrival, literally one mile down the road, I discovered that everyone but me had removed their shoes and socks and it took another ten minutes to get out of the car. Releasing them into a public place was my next challenge. Once inside, Rose immediately began to climb over the side of someone’s booth while Rider collected sugar packets from the condiment table. I could not get their attention long enough to ascertain what they wanted to eat so I ordered a hamburger and chicken nuggets in hope of pleasing one of them. I also ordered a meal for myself which proved entirely unnecessary. Carrying a tray of food, I plucked Rose off the bench where she was about to do a nose dive onto someone’s table, put all the sugar back and corralled everyone into a booth.

I unwrapped the nutritional equivalent of a cardboard box and laid it all out on the table. I got out the prizes, unwrapped the straws and opened the milk. The fries were divvied up, the ketchup squeezed out onto the wrappers and we were ready to dine. “Aunty Jo, I have to go pee pee.” I considered my options. 1) Leave the food here and hope no one relieves me of it, 2) leave a child here and hope no one relieves me of it 3) pack up the food and drag the whole circus into the bathroom. I went with the last one. I put all the food carefully in the top of my bag. Once in the stall I made sure Rose wasn’t touching anything and turned to look at Rider. “You have to undo my pants.” Check. “You have to lift me onto the toilet.” Check. “You have to hold down my pee pee.” Excuse me? His little pee pee was indeed aiming straight at me and since he was busy keeping himself from falling in, I clearly had the job of chief penis holder downer. As someone who has not spent a lot of time around little boys, every part of me was screaming, “Nooo, don’t touch the pee pee.” But an alternative was not immediately presenting itself. I looked around to make sure there were no witnesses and with one finger I pushed it down and made a mental note to add this to the list of childless perks.

At this point Rose went for the chicken nuggets and dumped our lunch into my bag. Distracted by the ketchup and milk oozing through my Louis Vuitton, I forgot about my job as pee pee holder. The designer bag covered in condiments was nothing compared to the Aunty Jo covered in pee. After some extensive clean up we made it back to the booth and decided to try again. I got what food I could out of my purse and put it back on the table. “Aundy Do, pee pee.” You have got to be kidding me. We performed the whole stunt again, but this time it was the girl child who had no particular job for me so I slumped down in the corner to get my wits together and watch Rider lick the paper towel dispenser.

I gave up on feeding them and took them out to the playground, where they spent a good hour taking their shoes on and off while I sat on a bench and ate McNuggets out of my purse. A lady came up to tell me that I have beautiful children. I said thank you, pleased that I was looking more parental than I was feeling and hoping she didn’t notice the distinct urine aroma. We chatted for a few minutes about my delightful children which was fun until Rider yelled, “Hey Aunty Jo, watch this,” from the top of the jungle gym. Time to go. The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting in a bouncy castle defending a teary Rider who was deeply offended that the big kids did not believe that he was Spidey, and trying to stop a two-year-old from throwing herself off a huge slide that a ten-year-old would not have had the courage to set foot on. I located my brother at the hotel pool and deposited the kids back with their rightful owner. I should have gone to rid myself of pee and ketchup, but instead I pulled up a deck chair and ordered a very large drink.

After a year of therapy, I decided to try it again. I have to get better at this eventually, right? Child number three was on the way and I needed to get some practice in before I became horribly outnumbered. On the next family vacation, I had a condo close to my brother so we arranged a slumber party. Rose slept in the double bed with me and Rider was in the single bed next to us. I made up a story that completely disinterested them, and then Rider rolled over and went to sleep. Rose spent the next two hours doing somersaults in the bed, rearranging her dolls, singing to herself and taking her pajamas on and off. I thought there might be a better chance of her settling down if I was not there as the audience so I slipped out to the living room telling her that I would be right back. Ten minutes later all was quiet and I thought it was a brilliant move. And then I heard the footsteps. Oh no. A little person in nothing but a diaper came out, put her hands on her hips and told me that I was taking too long. We sat in a rocking chair for a while and I sang a brilliant composition titled, “Rose is Getting Sleepy.” The rocking worked because she fell asleep in my arms. That is one of the best feelings in the world.

I have never tried to sleep with a bag of cats but I imagine it is something like sharing a bed with Rose. The few moments of sleep that I got were interrupted by a kick to the stomach or a whack to the face. It was a long night. But finally dawn arrived and Rose began to wake up. She rolled over, put her little arms around me and snuggled her face into my neck. I was really touched by the beautiful, loving moment from my darling little niece. I whispered, “Morning Rosie Bug,” and she said, “I have too many boogers in my nose.” The rest of the morning we pulled out every toy we could find in the house and used every towel to clean up spilled milk and smashed banana. I gave them cereal for breakfast which naturally joined the peanut butter on the carpet. My favorite part came as I was trying to get them out the door to take them home. Rose was sitting on the couch and I told her it was time to go and she announced, “I pee Aundy Do.” What is with these children and peeing all over everything? After cleaning up the child, the couch and the floor, I had to do three loads of laundry. I was dressing children, doing my hair, burning toast and settling arguments over who gets the Batman cup. I thought I was doing a fairly good job of keeping everything under control until the review came out. “Aunty Jo, you’re a little cwazy.”

Now I live in the same city as my brother and I see his three kids every weekend. My education as an aunt has been a fun, exhausting and fascinating adventure. I have been forced to take on more of a parent role than a crazy aunt role and although the transition wasn’t easy, I think I’m kind of rocking it. And yet I still have so much to learn. Last weekend I was running an errand and asked, “Does anyone want to take a trip to the grocery store with me?” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I marveled that I have been living here for two years and I still make rookie mistakes like that. I should have quietly snuck out the back door instead of trying to control three children pushing miniature shopping carts into displays and wine racks. What brilliant marketing research analyst at Ralphs came up with the idea of providing shopping carts for two-year-olds?

I don’t handle every situation well and my parenting education is far from complete. But I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from the kids in my family, and understand what it feels like to love a child that much. I’m also grateful that I get to give them back, turn on some Sinatra, pour a glass of wine, and wander over to my sofa that no one has wiped their snot on, without tripping over a single helicopter.