Aunting and Uncling

Smartphone on white backgroundAt a restaurant the other night my friend Priscilla and I ordered the Korean street tacos (our latest “we live in L.A. and we’re cool” obsession), handed the menus back to the waiter, and began a hilarious conversation . . . on Facebook. I love eating out with Priscilla because we are both addicted to our smart phones. We keep them on the table next to our plates and don’t get offended when the other needs to respond to her text messages. It is understood that she is going to check us in on Facebook while I snap and upload a few photos for posterity. We love our phones so much that it amuses us to instant message while sitting a few feet apart. We are not alone. Most of our friends in their 30s and 40s act like ridiculous teenagers too.

What I don’t like are people who carry on about technology destroying our society and how we don’t communicate anymore. Apparently Facebook is disabling our ability to connect and text messages are making us illiterate. I have a master’s degree and a colorful social life. So the naysayers can mind their own business and back off my iPhone. With this thought in mind, I picked up a book (with actual paper pages) by sociologist Claude S. Fischer called America Calling; A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. The book takes a look at the history of the telephone from the point of view of the social change it brought to American society. It turns out, when the new invention first gained traction as a household staple, people carried on about how it was going to destroy our social skills and disconnect families by interrupting dinner. The debate (and fear mongering) has been going on for decades. Fischer’s conclusion is that technology doesn’t decide how our society is going to behave but rather we use it to further our own lifestyle agenda:

“…while a material change as fundamental as the telephone alters the conditions of daily life, it does not determine the basic character of that life. Instead, people turn new devices to various purposes, even ones that the producers could hardly have foreseen or desired. As much as people adapt their lives to the changed circumstances created by a new technology, they also adapt that technology to their lives. The telephone did not radically alter American ways of life; rather, Americans used it to more vigorously pursue their characteristic ways of life” (pg 5).

Technology does not shape our lives; we use it to our own purposes to enhance the lifestyle we have chosen. You can’t blame the phone if you don’t like where society is going. I found another quote that supports my position so bear with me:

“Historian George Daniels puts the challenge broadly, ‘No single invention . . . ever changed the direction in which a society was going . . . [Moreover,] the direction in which society is going determines the nature of its technological inventions . . . Habits seem to grow out of other habits for more directly than they do out of gadgets” (pg 9. Yes, I made it to page 9).

So there, you people who put sad things on the Internet about how we are all plugged in and missing out on life. I almost did a happy dance about finding a bona fide sociologist who supports my phone addiction. Then I started thinking about how I am really living my life, which is never advisable.

My iPhone has apps for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central and YouTube. I have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Skype, Entertainment Weekly, and iBooks. No pointless meme or gratuitous waste of time is going on out there that I don’t know about. I have two televisions, two Tivos, a Blu-Ray player that streams Netflix, a desktop computer, a laptop, and an iPad with the Netflix app—for when I’m roaming around my 900 square foot downtown apartment. It’s important to have a go-to plan when forced out of range from the TV for time-wasting activities like showers or meal preparation. My Bluetooth is hidden by my hair so I can wander around the grocery store without anyone realizing I am streaming the most recent TV show that I am binge-listening. I don’t binge-watch Netflix. I watch the first few episodes so that I get the gist and then binge-listen to 32 seasons of Gossip Girl while jogging or driving home from work. You know, because I wouldn’t want to waste all that time in front of the TV.

This is the technology that does not control my life but is used to create the life I want. It is carefully installed in my house, car and shower stall to ensure that I am never alone with my thoughts. What does an almost 40-year-old single widow, whose life is centered around work and other people’s children, want with alone time? Nothing good can come of that. I might be willing to admit that the emotionally manipulative video on YouTube about the man who does not see his son’s touchdown and the woman who misses the opportunity to make friends at the bus stop because they were staring at their phones, might have a point. Maybe I’m missing something by constantly numbing the voice in my head with pop culture.

In my defense, the one time I make a real effort to disconnect from technology is around my nieces and nephews. I try to give them my full attention. I’ve caught myself picking up the phone while we are at their favorite sushi restaurant that has their photo on the wall, watching Frozen for the tenth time, or riding skateboards up and down the street like they don’t know I’m too old for that. It’s a hard habit to break but it’s important. I’d like to think that if I had children of my own, I would discard the mind-numbing technology and give all my energy to them, so I am trying to do that with the children that I do have in my life. Also, I thoughtlessly put my password into my phone while my niece was watching and ruined the world’s best 4 digit combination, so I won’t be caught doing that again.

It’s a struggle to control my addiction around my nieces and nephews and leave my phone in my bag. But I don’t want to be the one who teaches them this social behavior, which I am finally willing to admit is somewhat detrimental. I want them to know that when they are with me, they are my first priority and not the video of a cat playing the piano. The one question that I can’t avoid is, why don’t I do that for my friends?

I am willing to own up to the fact that I use technology as a crutch, but making dramatic changes to my routine is easier said than done. It is my addiction after all. However, I have made efforts in little areas. I signed up for a writing program that sends me daily spelling tests and grammar lessons to combat Word and Apple’s autocorrect. I deleted the CNN app and installed the BBC, so no more alerts when Justin Bieber gets arrested or Kimye says something stupid. I get a daily email with a spiritual lesson to think about instead. Now my technology is expanding my mind and I can feel better about flopping in front of the TV when my day of high culture (or let’s face it, adulthood) is over.

I will never feel bad about making my Facebook friends read my conversations with Priscilla about how my tacos taste like sandpaper so we should probably jet and get our American Idol on. My best friend and I have an unspoken pact in our phone obsession. But I will admit that technology, social media and pop culture are not as harmless as I’d like to think. It is very easy to let it shape our lives, rather than using it to enhance the productive lives we aspire to.

Snowed UnderMy brother took his wife on a kid-free vacation for four days and left his offspring with me. I planned a sensational schedule of activities that was sure to solidify my position as the best aunt ever. One of them was a trip to the Queen Mary, an ocean liner built in the 1930s that is now a gigantic floating hotel in the Long Beach harbor. During the season that Californians refer to as winter (with no practical understanding of what that means) there is an event at the ship called Chill that features novelties such as touching snow and viewing ice sculptures.

Word spread of the amazing adventure and it is a bit of a blur, but I ended up with seven nieces and nephews signed up for the trip. I recruited my friend Priscilla because I could not handle the transportation or child wrangling on my own. I believe I billed her role in the outing appropriately but that would later become a grey area.

I could have taught the kids that during World War II the Queen Mary was painted a camouflage grey color and turned into a troopship. She was the largest and fastest ship to sail, capable of transporting as many as 16,000 troops at 30 knots, which is why she was nicknamed the “Grey Ghost.” The boys would have found that interesting. I could have shown them the gigantic propellers and explained how they transformed the boat back into a luxury cruise liner after the war. It could have been an educational and enlightening afternoon. This is what happened instead.

I had read that the ice sculpture room was really cold and the kids would need gloves and hats. Seven of them were packed into the cars in 80 degree weather wearing ski jackets and two pairs of pants. Clothes were discarded at various intervals during the drive and scattered all over the place. When we arrived it took quite some time to gather and separate everyone’s belongings and walk all nine of us across several parking lots and into the event. Once there, my nephew Rider announced he had left his coat in the car. We were all sweating at this point so I said he could have mine. It’s really hard to imagine being cold enough for a coat when you are getting sunburned and I was not about to go back to the car and restart this party. Then he announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I left Priscilla with five of them while I disappeared with Rider and the three-year-old, Stanley, whom I had no intention of letting out of my sight for a moment. Of all seven, he was the most likely to find adventure elsewhere.

A mere hour after our initial arrival we were back together, heads were counted, and we were finally ready to hit the ice sculpture room. It was crowded and hot as we stood in line, holding our coats and hats, for an hour and a half. The children amused themselves for the first ten minutes and then rapidly descended into whining about how long it was taking and collapsing on the floor in melodramatic exhaustion. Stanley was such a mess he had to be carried and tried to fall asleep on my shoulder crying, “I so ti-awed, Aunty Jo.” Finally we got past the first check point. The kids perked up and we confidently moved forward . . . to the back of another line. A child in front of us threw up, expressing the review of this event that so many of us were thinking. So now the children added the wretched stench to their list of grievances. “We are almost there. It won’t be long. You’re fine. We just need to be patient a little while longer.” I was starting to sound like a broken record. Priscilla found a package of car air fresheners in her purse and the kids tried to stuff them up their noses. They were a good distraction so I chose not to question the thought process behind storing sticks of air freshener in your handbag.

Finally we made it to the end of the line and all of a sudden the event staff were rushing us up to the door. A man mentioned seven degrees and something about my phone cracking while I scrambled to get the kid’s coats and hats on. We were pushed through the door and the magical adventure began! Seven degrees. The kids all looked at me like I had brought them into a torture chamber. I struggled with zippers, handed out gloves and tried to sound enthusiastic about the room full of plastic looking characters from the Nutcracker. I said, “Hey, isn’t this fun?” Seven-year-old Rose said, “You are crazy, Lady.” (She is the delicate flower of the family.) Stanley turned blue within two minutes and started crying, and Rider asked to leave. Priscilla surveyed the happy scene and said something I can’t repeat.

The crowd was blocking both exits and panic set in. The older kids wanted to stay and try the promised and long-awaited ice slide but it was another long line. Stanley added shaking to the tears coming down his blue face and I was clearly becoming unhinged. I decided to leave Priscilla with the sliders, and the hysterical children headed out the emergency exit with me before she knew what hit her. We found a spot outside with hot chocolate and cookies and settled in to wait for the others. For the next 45 minutes colorful texts and photos from Priscilla indicated that maybe this situation could have gone another way. But Stanley was back to his usual color and happily chatting with Siri on my phone.

When they finally emerged from the frozen tomb of hell the kids told me how bad the slide had been while I placated them with cookies and their guardian began defrosting and plotting her revenge. The next event we had paid for was ice tubing but we’d all had enough. We explored the ship instead and I let them take their shoes off and tear around the top deck playing tag like a bunch of hoodlums. People trying to enjoy the tourist attraction were no doubt wondering where the adults responsible for these unruly children were, and I tried to look equally disappointed in the parents of America. I sat in a heap and watched the game, happy they were finally having fun. Priscilla found the bar.

On reflection I realized that, for the first time, my plans with the kids had turned into an epic failure. It was an expensive, exhausting and stressful lesson in babysitting. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are if you get too ambitious, like thinking you can handle seven children in a chaotic tourist trap. When you are that outnumbered it is best to keep it simple. The kids would have had a much better time jumping on the trampoline in the backyard with me and we could have played tag in our bare feet at the affordable and spacious park down the street. I laughed out loud a few days later when I got a thank you note from one of the kids saying that he’d had fun and asking if we could do it again sometime. I told him I’d have to check Priscilla’s schedule.

WantAdsMy sister-in-law took the kids out of town to visit their grandparents for a few days, leaving my brother at home to fend for himself. Conversations with my brother these days are usually peppered with distracting side notes such as, “Stop blowing bubbles in your milk and eat your carrots,” “No, you may not be excused while everyone is still eating,” and “Where are your pants?” So we took the opportunity to hang out together and have an adult conversation. He very kindly offered to take me out to do things he knows I like to do but I said, “I get to do whatever I want every day. Pick something you want to do.” I quietly teased “and I’ll pretend it’s not lame” but that is not pertinent to this story. I was envisioning myself building a chicken coop or a rabbit warren or one of his other I-can-be-a-financial-broker-and-a-farmer-in-Los-Angeles projects. But he is also an artist so we had a lovely evening at an art gallery in Laguna Beach.

Ever since then, I have been chewing on the idea that I get to do whatever I want, every day.  I am single, childless and financially stable. I sold my house and moved into an apartment so that I would not be tied to yard work on the weekends. If I get a text that my friends are going out, I can blow off any chores I was planning to do. I don’t have to explain that Nordstrom bag to anyone. If I want to go to the post office in my pajamas, there’s no one around to suggest a more appropriate course of action. Besides getting up every day, grooming myself, and going to work, there is very little in my life that I absolutely have to do. I’m not sure you can get any closer to complete freedom without moving into the woods, throwing away your smart phone and refusing to pay taxes. I’m in a strange stage in my life when I am free to follow my heart and do just about anything. That should make me happy, right? Isn’t that living the dream? My married friends who spend their days picking up toys and wiping noses with their t-shirts certainly seem to think so.

It turns out that total personal freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. It changes as you go through life but we all still need purpose to feel secure and fulfilled. Young people generally do not have a problem finding their purpose. Their lives are full with getting an education, finding a career, and learning how to hold a fork on a date. However, as you get older you can find that what you thought was your purpose in life may have taken a detour. The dream career you went to school for was fun for a while but not realistic. You are so deep into the responsible career you ended up with that you are set on this path for life. The husband you lovingly cared for passed away. The house you spent years remodeling into your own castle was too much for you on your own. You spent years working late into the night after work to earn your master’s degree and never intend to think that hard again. These may be my personal detours but I’m sure you can relate. Life changes all the time and it often takes away those things that you think give your life meaning. Coping with that change can be hard.

What really matters is the people you have in your life and how you contribute to their happiness and wellbeing. That’s hardly a revelation but it is easy to forget sometimes. I don’t know about you, but it takes effort for me not to focus on what I don’t have and instead pour my energy into what I do have. Right now my life is pretty uncomplicated, but one day it will all change again and I will have a whole new set of goals and responsibilities to focus on. Maybe I’ll fall in love again. Maybe I’ll move to a third world country and build schools. Maybe I’ll adopt an extremely needy cat. The possibilities are endless and that gives me hope for the future. But what gives me my sense of purpose right now are my nieces and nephews. Being a good aunt is my job, my responsibility. I am fortunate that I have a brother and cousins with kids nearby and I take great satisfaction in giving them new experiences and being a good example. OK, maybe just the new experiences thing, but you know what I mean. Without a family of my own, I have found a way to feel needed and useful.

The good thing is that you don’t have to have a flesh and blood family or lots of nieces and nephews to get the same sense of purpose in your life. You can find a community to connect to and people to care for, but you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go and find it. I didn’t always live near my family and I had to put myself out there. I mentored a child through my town’s family services department. I volunteered at a pet shelter. I had an elderly lady on my street that I checked in on every few days. For my most recent purpose-finding adventure, I joined a charity organization that makes me get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to train for a half marathon that I am going to run . . . on purpose.  If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.

Last weekend I was sleeping in my niece’s room in her little twin bed, surrounded by ponies and dolls. I heard the door open and a little person sneak across the room. I opened one eye just enough to see the clock. 5 a.m. Ugh. It’s funny how you can tell which child is nearby from the time of day and the speed of the sneak-up. My three-year-old nephew Stanley climbed into bed with me, snuggled in and went right back to sleep. For the next two hours I stared at his little face while perched uncomfortably in the three inches of bed that were allotted to me. I briefly considered getting down on the floor, and then marveled that I even had that thought. I was putting myself out and suffering for this little boy that had a perfectly good bed of his own. It was more important to have him near me and let him sleep in than to sleep myself.

Now, that is what I call a sense of purpose.

ImageI have a guy friend who isn’t exactly up on the latest suggestions for how to treat a woman. When we are walking down the street, he walks three steps in front of me. If he goes through a door first, it usually slams back in my face. Sometimes I think he is intentionally treating me like one of the boys so that I don’t get confused about our friendship. But most of the time I just think he’s an idiot. On the other hand, I have another friend who is also not threatening to fall in love with me who is a complete gentleman. On an excursion recently, we got out of the car and started walking down the street. He was telling me a story and without missing a beat, stepped around behind me so that he was walking on the outside of the sidewalk. I was floored because being a gentleman is such a lost art. I’m quite possibly the most independent woman I know, but this little sign of respect was a very pleasant surprise.

There are many theories about the origin of this point of etiquette. If you Google it, you will find all kinds of people sharing things they heard from someone who heard something. A wonderful thing, the Internet. According to the informed public, a man walks on the outside because in medieval times, the practice of emptying chamber pots out of the upper windows into the gutter made a walk down the street so hazardous that the gentleman took the side most likely to be drenched. Gallant men also took the side closest to the street to protect the lady from mud splashed up by the horse and carriages. In more modern times, men walk on the outside to protect the woman from a car that may jump the curb (because what women worry about when strolling down the street is the cars that come flying up onto the sidewalk.) And my personal favorite: pimps walk with their prostitutes on the outside to show them off to oncoming traffic, so gentlemen do the opposite. I’m going with that one. My dear friend walked on the outside to announce to the world that I’m not a ho, in case anyone was confused. The point is there is no reason for a man to walk on the outside. It’s just a classy gesture that signals to a girl that he is thoughtful and considerate.

I have been giving some thought to how you teach a child to be a gentleman so that when he is grown, treating a lady like a lady is second nature. It is not just a job for a parent because if they are the only ones who expect it of them, it is much harder to make it instinctive. So far all I’ve been teaching my seven-year-old nephew, Rider, is that sneaking up and jumping on me will usually instigate a very unladylike wrestle, and licking my face instead of kissing me goodnight will always get the desired reaction. Wiping snot on my shirt has a similar effect. I do a fabulous job of making the kids say please. They know that every question addressed to me that starts with “Can you” has to end in “please.” When they forget, all I have to do is look at them like I don’t understand what they are saying and they quickly add the please. One of my five-year-old niece’s friends did not know what to do with my perfected stare and Rose rolled her eyes and whispered, “You have to say please. She has this whole thing about saying please.” It has become fun for me and I am proud of my success. But what else can I do to support their parents’ efforts?

One weekend Rider was the only one of my brother’s family who had not come down with a cold and I offered to keep him with me for the day. I knew that my cousin’s kids were getting together so I offered to invite ourselves over there to play. Rider shook his head and looked at me like he couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what he was thinking. “Umm, do you want to see if one of your friends can go out to lunch with us?” He looked disappointed and I looked around for an interpreter. Finally it came out that this was his day with me and he wanted to go out to lunch, just the two of us. I’ve added that moment to my list of the best things anyone has ever said to me. I gave him a list of options; Chucky Cheese, McDonalds, Tacos. He said he wanted sushi. Again my heart swelled with pride. I am having an effect on this kid! My brother has questionable taste and will not eat sushi, so once in a while, my sister-in-law and I will go out on a sushi date and leave the kids with him. Here was my little nephew asking for his very own sushi date, which was astounding because he doesn’t like it. He pretends to like it in front of his cousins so he looks as cool as they do, and his enthusiasm is very convincing. But I’ve watched the look on his face when he tries to chew it and I know better.

We got dressed up and went to a Japanese restaurant. We walked in and I said, “Two for the sushi bar please,” and Rider looked around to see if anyone was as impressed with us as he was. He was the only kid there and very proud to be sitting at the bar. I showed him how to put his napkin on this lap, unwrap his chopsticks and rub them together. He did a pretty good job of holding them. He learned that you don’t put the edamame shells that you just sucked on back into the bowl, and in Japan it is rude to leave rice on your plate. He picked at the sushi pieces, unrolled them and ate the rice. He clearly was not a fan of seaweed but he was trying to hide it. I pretended to be still hungry and ordered teriyaki. We talked about his friends, how annoying his little sister is, and the awesomeness of Star Wars. When we were done he said, “I’m the luckiest kid in the world. I get to have time with you by myself, eating the sushi of my dreams.”

To Rider, our lunch was not a learning opportunity. He did not know that I was showing him how to eat in a restaurant like a grown up and have a real conversation with a woman. I didn’t plan it so it was an accident for me too, but I recognized the teaching moment and took advantage of it.  We have actually been to that same restaurant with the whole family, cousins and all, and left the table and surrounding area looking like there had been a food fight. Children in groups are hard to contain in restaurants, especially when fried rice and chop sticks are involved. Being the only single person in my family, I was the only one skulking out of the restaurant in shame. This grown up alone time was a special treat for us both and something I hope to do more often with all of my kids. It may be a while before Rider is out of the licking, burping, ninja sneak attack stage that plagues so many seven-year-old boys, but when his wife tells me that she first noticed him when he opened the door for her and stepped around to the outside of the sidewalk, I hope that I will have done enough by then to take some of the credit.

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.

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.