ImageNo one at my brother’s house understands the concept of sleeping in. It is just not done. I have come to understand this fact and adjust my bedtime accordingly, knowing that at the crack of dawn, three children will be fighting over a spot next to me in bed and a turn with the games on my iPad. If I am lucky they let me keep my pillow and I never complain about the early morning intrusions. One day, however, they were a little more feisty than usual. They turned on the light, snapped off my sleeping mask, jumped on the bed, pulled off the covers and dragged me to the floor by my feet. Once suitably restrained on the floor, they demanded piggy-back rides, which happens so frequently they have shortened “Please Aunty Jo, may I have a piggy-back ride” to “Pretzel!” I’m not entirely certain but I think it might be my horse name. This did not produce the desired activity so my eight-year-old nephew, Rider, sat on me and said, “I’m sensing some negativity.”

I think of myself as a fairly positive person. Maybe not when being physically abused at 6 a.m., but, you know, generally speaking. My nephew’s early-onset sarcasm always makes me laugh but this time it got me thinking about whether he really does notice when I am negative. Growing up, I had a friend whose father was kind of a negative person. When she asked him for permission to do anything, his first reaction was almost always “no.” She knew that if she kept talking and explaining the situation, he would have time to think about it and come around. She had learned that his first reaction was going to be negative and that it was not always the final word on the subject. She had to give him time to work his mind around to something more positive. It was fascinating to watch and had a big impact on me.

I have noticed that some people are inherently positive and always see a challenge as something that can be overcome. We all know people who smile all the time and exude happiness. When my husband was dealing with a setback in his cancer treatment, his doctor suggested a “laugh clinic” that was being held in the hospital. A woman in a clown nose had patients in a circle and was teaching them how to fake a hearty laugh. She claimed that if you pretend you are happy, eventually you will be. She proved this theory by explaining that when she was standing in the street in her pajamas watching her house burn down, she made herself laugh for 20 minutes and felt much better. She was clearly insane and I kept wondering when the psych ward was going to notice she was missing.

While there is apparently such a thing as being ridiculously positive, others have to work on how they react to difficulty and need constant encouragement. Many of my friends who are parents have one child who sees the good in everything and one who has to be convinced that the world isn’t going to end when things don’t go as planned. Why do some kids chug up the hill chanting, “I think I can. I think I can” while their sibling is thinking, “I cannot pull even so little a train over the mountain. I cannot, I cannot”? They have the same parents, so clearly nature has a hand in deciding this personality trait. But what do parents do to nurture the right attitude that an enthusiastic aunt can take to heart?

I turned to a friend who has twins. One is like her, a happy, positive person. The other she describes as a born pessimist. When anything goes wrong he is automatically having “the worst day ever!” She has started a routine to help him train his brain to focus on the positive first. When he gets in the car after school, he has to tell her one good thing that happened that day before he is allowed to go through his laundry list of all the wrongs he has suffered. He is still allowed to tell her about his problems, but first he has to focus on something positive. Then she helps him find something that he can learn from the things that were bad. Even when venting about the negative, he has to find something that he can take away and use next time he finds himself in that situation. She is using this repetition in hopes that he will learn to find the positive first on his own.

If you do a search for self-help material on how to have a positive attitude, like me you will be bombarded with people who can tell you how it is done. Just put your mind to it! If you change your thoughts, you can control what happens in your life! Create your life from within. If you want love, focus on all the people you love. If you want success, focus your mind on the areas where you are already successful. There are books and books of catch phrases that are hard to argue with, but training your mind to automatically go to a happy place is easier said than done.

I decided to start small. I get that a positive attitude is part of the personality you are born with, but attitudes and thinking can be changed. Ask any psychologist. Like almost everything in our ever changing lives, the knowledge of how to be positive can be learned and the skill developed. If I am going to help my nieces and nephews cultivate a positive attitude, I first need to lead by example. I made a conscious effort to change “you have to” to “you get to.” “Hey everybody! We get to put on our pajamas and brush our teeth!” OK, so maybe that wasn’t the best moment to launch the plan. Three-year-old Stanley’s bottom lip starts quivering at the mere mention of an N-A-P so it was a tough sell. But I like the theory. The kids can only benefit from my efforts to positive. Don’t get me wrong, I marched their behinds to bed because doing what Aunty Jo says is not optional, but I did it with a smile.

The amount of time that I get to spend with each of my many nieces and nephews is not going to change their personalities. That’s not my job. But I can avoid showing them how negative is done. To be clear, anyone sitting on my head at 6 in the morning is going to continue to sense some serious negativity. But I am determined that one day, my attackers will look back at my influence on their lives as a positive one.

empathyAt a conference for financial professionals in Miami recently, I attended a keynote speech by Michael J. Fox. I’m pretty sure he has nothing to do with the world of finance, but sometimes I think they choose speakers at these events to help us forget for a minute that our livelihoods are dependent on the U.S. economy. I was so interested in hearing what he had to say that I arrived early and sat in the front. It was inspiring and depressing, sad and hilarious all at the same time. He has an endearing sense of humor and an inspiring message but it was hard to watch knowing that he is struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his life-threatening illness, he spoke about the amazing opportunities he has been given because of his disease and how important it is to be optimistic.

All of his stories were memorable but I keep coming back to one: After a vacation in Paris, he and his family flew on the Air France Concorde back to New York. For those too young to remember, the Concorde was a supersonic plane that could get you from Paris to New York in 3 hours if you were willing to sell a kidney to pay for the ticket. His wife is afraid of flying and was particularly afraid of the futuristic Concorde. Michael promised her that if this trip was too much, they would never take that type of plane again. One Valium and three hours later, the family made it to New York. The next day Michael was in his office watching television and heard that the next flight to leave Paris after his family took off had crashed, killing 113 people. The Concorde never flew again. In telling this story in his book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, he finishes by saying, “Sometimes, when you are alone, minutes pass before you even realize you are crying.”

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this story. In 2001, my parents came to visit my husband and me in New York. We took them on a road trip up the coast and had a wonderful time in Cape Cod. On the way home, we dropped my parents off in Boston as their flight back to Los Angeles was leaving from Logan airport the next morning. My husband’s office was on Park Avenue, but the morning that my parents were traveling, he had a special meeting in the World Trade Center. Exactly one week later, he called me at 8:45 in the morning and said, “Turn on the TV.” We watched the twin towers fall together on the phone, completely stunned by the fact that if the attackers had launched their plan one week earlier, my parents would have been on the plane that crashed into the building and my husband would have been on the 34th floor. I was at work surrounded by others who were also sitting around the TV in stunned silence. Sometimes you don’t have to be alone for several minutes to pass before you realize that you are crying.

As a society, we don’t have trouble empathizing when tragedy hits us on a national scale. Our hearts go out to the people whose houses are washed away by a hurricane, whose businesses are destroyed by an oil spill, or whose families are devastated by a madman with a gun. We are a very caring and generous nation and we rally around those who are suffering. I was only one of many in my office who shed tears when we heard that 27 children and teachers that we had never met had been murdered in their classroom in Connecticut. Why is it that so many have trouble taking that empathy down to a small, everyday scale? Why can’t we empathize with people who don’t share our level of education, our financial status, or dare I say it, our political point of view? Seth Godin is an author who has published 14 best-selling books about societal issues such as the post-industrial revolution, marketing and leadership. On his popular site titled Seth’s Blog he recently posted this quote: “When we extend our heart, our soul and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one crisp and certain point of view.”

Since I am as guilty as anyone, today I am going to try to take an ounce of the empathy that I feel for the families burying their children in Newtown, and exercise it on something trivial as well, like people who can’t quit smoking or listening to country music. Imagine what our world would be like if we were all willing to empathize, even just a little bit, with people whose habits, preferences and opinions annoy us.

spoiling kidsListening to the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a singer who was enjoying his first big hit. The DJ asked what big purchases he had made since becoming rich and famous. I was expecting him to say a house or a car, but he proudly announced that he could finally afford to buy the Lego Millennium Falcon, a space ship from Star Wars. He had wanted it his whole life and that was the first thing he did with his new found wealth. “Huh,” I thought to myself,” I just bought that for my nephew.” For a brief moment I felt a twinge of guilt for being that family member who showers the kids with material possessions and then leaves the parents to deal with the consequences. How ridiculous that a rock star was excited about earning his prize and I just dropped it into the lap of a spoiled eight-year-old. And then I got over it, took my nephew to Disneyland and bought him whatever he wanted.

Giving presents to my nieces and nephews makes me happy. I will do just about anything for those moments of dancing around in excitement, hugs, and loud proclamations that I’m the best aunt ever. Everybody who loves a child wants those moments. However, they also need to be able to find the boundaries. As an aunt, do I understand how my gift giving enthusiasm is impacting the children? I thought about it and the answer is no. No, I do not. I have no experience in keeping children grounded and grateful while everyone around is giving them everything they ask for. I’m also willing to admit that I’m not likely to learn. I’m not going to stop buying Lego or going through the American Girl doll catalog with my niece to figure out what she wants next. I also do not want to cause problems, and turn those sweet little “you’re the best aunt” faces into spoiled “this is not what I wanted” scowls. I truly believe that giving children too much at once is detrimental, but I want someone else to worry about it and let me be the popular aunt.

Since I can’t trust my own discernment when it comes to overdoing it on the presents, I have made a conscious effort to rely on my brother and his wife to guide me. I have started asking them if it is OK if I buy the creepy mummy Indiana Jones set, or the movie with the scary bear.  I am trying to ask if I can take them bowling or out to dinner when the kids are not within ear shot so that they have a chance to say no without being the bad guy. I say I’m trying because I will admit that I asked my brother about the holy grail of Lego sets as it was sitting on my bed waiting to be wrapped. Self-control is not my strong suit, but at least I am trying. Parents don’t want to say no or be forced to be the gatekeeper all the time, but they know better than anyone when their kids need the family to dial down the spoiling.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to protect a child from the commercialism and greed that is so ingrained in our world, but I think it is a very important role in parenting.  I am aware that I regularly flop over the fence, alternating between trying not to be a part of the problem and being the chief offender. The least I can do is ensure open communication with the parents of the children I am influencing. Even if I ignore them and clean out Toys-R-Us anyway, at least they can mentally prepare themselves to make room for another spaceship.

My brother recently had a dinner party that included my parents and some close friends. When his three kids finished eating, they asked to be excused from the table. As I enjoyed the dessert and adult conversation, in the background I could see them plotting something. They were quietly scurrying around, dashing ninja style through the kitchen, like we couldn’t see them. I had no idea what they were up to but experience told me it wasn’t anything good. After about 20 minutes of giggling and trying to look nonchalant as they went in and out the back door, they came to me at the table and whispered, “Aunty Jo, can you help us with something?” I realized I was about to become part of the scheme, but I was so pleased to be singled out from all the adults at the table that I ignored the voice in my head telling me to run away.

They took me outside and explained that they had gathered all of their father’s toiletries from his bathroom and placed them in a shoe box. The box was now buried in the vegetable garden and they needed to paint an X on the ground. They were going to make him go on a pirate treasure hunt for his own comb and shaving cream. I surveyed the mess they had made in the garden and considered the possible courses of action. I could (a) act like an adult and explain that this is not a good idea and Daddy probably won’t be too happy about having his toothbrush in a hole in the ground, (b) go and get someone actually responsible for these children and make them be the bad guy, or (c) find some paint in the garage and coat the dirt in my brother’s garden. If you’ve read anything I have ever written you already know what I did. In my defense, there may have been a glass or two of wine involved, impairing my usually questionable judgment.

I knew it was a terrible idea, but three little faces clasped their hands under their chins and said, “Pleeease Aunty Jo, we’ve been working so hard on this prank on Daddy and we can’t do it without you.” I was powerless. I found a can of spray paint on the workbench in the garage and painted a small X in the dirt. The can was clear varnish and the kids began to question their choice of co-conspirator. I announced that this plan wasn’t going to work but they were not about to let me off that easy. They produced a silver can that was missing the nozzle, so as three little people danced around in excitement, I took the nozzle off another can and tried to attach it to the silver paint. That is when the can exploded, covering the kids, the fridge in the garage, the driveway and wait for it . . . my Dad’s brand new car. At this point the camaraderie of our dastardly pirate crew broke down and the kids ran into the house to tell on me while I frantically tried to clean the car and the fridge with a rag. A moment later, a grownup appeared and my little brother rolled his eyes at me and got out the turpentine. If I’m going to do something stupid, I go big, like covering my brother’s garage and family with oil-based paint. My parents never noticed anything amiss with their white car so I may have gotten away with that one. But as I stood in line with the kids waiting for my turn to be scrubbed with paint thinner, I gave some serious thought to the events that led to such a spectacular act of idiocy.

As an aunt, I have a really hard time finding the line between making the kids happy, and therefore love me, and being a responsible adult. The other day while babysitting, I overheard six-year-old Rose say to her brother, “I didn’t think she was going to let us do that.” Eight-year-old Rider responded, “Oh come on Rose, there isn’t much Aunty Jo won’t let us do.” It’s true. When the kids ask me if they can do or have something, I take a split second to consider how important it is in the scheme of things. If I am in the middle of reading my email and they ask if they can play a game on my phone, I can say, “No, I’m busy, go away” or “OK” and read my email later. The cost of saying yes is so little to me that I save my “no’s” for when they truly matter. The problem is that I get so used to saying yes that I’m not strong enough to recognize when it does truly matter, like say, when they beg me to decorate the garden with toxic paint.

Every day parents struggle with the issues of picking the right battles and avoiding the trap of being permissive so that their kids will like them. Extended family members have the same problem, but much less opportunity to practice. In the brief time I get with the kids on the weekend, I don’t want to be the bad guy and enforce discipline.  When the parents are handy I can just say, “Ask your mother,” and then it is not my problem. But when the kids are alone in my care or we are executing a covert plan in the backyard, it is my problem and I have to act like a parent. If my brother is going to feel comfortable leaving me unsupervised in his household, once in a while I am going to have to be unpopular and say no.

The point I am trying to make is being a perfect aunt is a really tough job, especially when you don’t have kids of your own to practice on and you only surrogate-parent on an occasional basis. However, some aunts recognize their failings and are doing their best to change. They need gentle guidance, patience, and forgiveness. And turpentine.

ImageDuring a family gathering, my two-year-old nephew, Stanley, climbed up onto a cabinet and pushed on the window screen to get the attention of his cousins outside. They looked up just in time to see him flying through the window, face-first onto the concrete below. It was quite a scene with Stanley screaming, parents running and paramedics on the phone. He walked away with a few scrapes and a nasty bump on his head so he was very lucky. All of the adults were shaken by the shock of watching him fall and the thought of what could have happened. The rest of the day he got whatever he wanted, and was passed from aunt to aunt for cuddles and cookies. We did not want him out of our sight and I don’t believe his feet touched the ground until bedtime.

I thought a lot that day about how hard it is to see a child hurt. There are few things that are more painful to me than watching a child suffer. There is usually little you can do to take the pain away when you would give anything to make it better, a feeling my parents know all too well. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. No one knew what that was at the time, so I had a script down about how it was a disease in my intestines that kept my body from digesting nutrients from the food I ate and caused severe stomach cramps. That was the simple version and people typically said “Oh,” and changed the subject. Digestive diseases are an awkward topic. I usually left out the part about how a virus was tearing up my insides and malnutrition caused all the problems that weren’t covered by the side effects of medication. If I wasn’t doubled over in pain, I probably had my head in a toilet. My experience with a very serious disease taught me that there is so much that we can do to help a child who is suffering from a health problem they can’t control and did nothing to deserve.

Thanks to my illness, I know more than I need to about what it is like for a child to endure pain and misery. More importantly, I know what is like for a child to observe what their pain and misery is doing to the family around them. Intellectually you know that you didn’t cause this and you can’t stop it, but you can’t ignore that your very existence is causing other people pain. One of my strongest memories of that time is my mother putting bowls of strained oatmeal next to my bed and begging me to eat. She put all the energy she had into whatever she could find to ease my pain, even if it meant hours of essential oil massages or getting up in the middle of the night to stroke my hair. Besides my parents, few people really knew how to help me. People very kindly came to the hospital during my frequent visits and asked how I was doing but I felt a little bit like an exhibit at the zoo. All anyone could talk about was my illness and I wanted to talk about New Kids On The Block and pretend I was a normal teenager. I felt like my future was gone and I would never be independent and able to take care of myself. Although I was 89 pounds at one point during my senior year in high school, my parents helped me with my homework and I managed to graduate. I barely remember that year because I could only focus on the pain, the guilt from knowing my illness was affecting my brother’s life, and the financial and emotional stress that I was causing my family.

Eventually I had no choice but to go through major surgery. The disease was threatening to perforate my intestinal lining, which would have killed me, so my large intestine was removed. It was a difficult period of adjustment but I learned when and what to eat, and my body adapted. It was the turning point that brought the end of my health problems and what felt like the beginning of my life. My parents do not have to sit next to my hospital bed for weeks on end anymore. They don’t have to watch me writhing on the floor in pain. They don’t worry about how I am going to support myself. I am healthy, independent and happy; three characteristics I never thought I would be able to claim. Now they get to stress over my habit of throwing myself out of perfectly good airplanes, traipsing around Europe alone with little regard for my own safety, and my elaborate plan to elope with Johnny Depp. I can’t make it too easy on them. That’s not what being a parent is about. (Out of curiosity, I called my parents, and asked them what I do that freaks them out. My dad said, “How many pieces of paper do you have?”)

In three months I am going to run a half marathon to benefit the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. The charity organization has a team of patients and volunteers that train and fundraise together. My first training session was very emotional for me. There was a time that I was so weak and frail that I didn’t think I was going to live, and in so much pain that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. And now I am training to run 13.1 miles to support summer camps and programs for children suffering in the same way. I started tearing up as soon as I hit the track. I am not a “runner” and I am going to need every minute of the three months to prepare, but I am excited about proving to myself that I am strong and healthy, and capable of achieving such an overwhelming goal for a cause that means so much to me.

Children suffering from illness or disability carry a large burden. They have done nothing to deserve the hand they have been dealt, and aren’t always mature enough to see beyond what they are feeling right now. When you feel so bad, it is hard to look at the long life ahead of you and believe that you will be happy. Older kids can be acutely aware of the stress they are putting on their families and the guilt just adds to the pain. Every single one of us can do something to help; something to make a sick child’s day a little better; something to stimulate hope. You don’t have to attempt to run 13 miles down the Las Vegas strip like a crazy person as I have signed up for. I don’t think I even have to offer suggestions because the possibilities are endless. We all know a child whose circumstances are difficult and it does not take a lot of time or money to help someone forget, even for a few moments, that they are not like everyone else.

In hospital, I lived for the moments when a friend would interrupt my long and boring day to paint my nails hideous shades of blue and silver and tell me about what happened to them at school. All you have to do is have a normal conversation about how awful it is that Edward and Bella broke up, what Justin Bieber did this week, or encourage the hope of going to college one day. That is all it takes to be a hero in the eyes of a child that would give anything to be a normal kid for just a little while.

When I am around at bedtime, I sing my nieces and nephews a song about an English sparrow who gets caught in a storm and blown all the way to Paris. He meets a beautiful French sparrow who (in a very impressive French accent, if I do say so myself) gives him a tour of her city. The kids don’t understand half the words but they have made me promise that one day I will take them to see the Bios de Boulogne, Montmartre and the Champs-Élysées. My brother thinks it is a great idea because he might actually get to go on vacation alone with his wife. I envision keeping track of three teenagers in Paris and become a little nauseated.

I love to travel and I believe experiencing other cultures is the key to becoming balanced and well-rounded. I recently enjoyed a wonderful vacation in Venice, Italy. On my last night I decided to treat myself to a $30 plate of spaghetti at a café on the water. I found a table surrounded by flowers and lights with a magnificent view of the gondolas cruising up and down the Grand Canal. I had been there for a week but I was still pinching myself over the fact that I was in Venice. As the sun went down and the pasta arrived, I absorbed my last moments in Italy with so much happiness. Suddenly my tranquility was interrupted by an obese woman in an unfortunate sparkly red and blue blouse who arrived and announced, “I don’t speak Eye-talian. I want a glass of white wine and I want to use the bathroom.” The waiter placed a glass of wine on a table and waited for her to return from the bathroom. She came back and sat at a different table on the other side of the room. The waiter had already removed the second place setting so he said, “Madam, your table” and indicated where her wine was waiting. She bellowed across the restaurant, “I’ll sit here or forget about it.” The appalled waiter glanced over at the owner as he graciously moved the wine to the place she had chosen to plop herself down. I too do not speak Eye-talian so I don’t know what was said between the waiters but the woman started yelling that she did speak Italian after all and she did not appreciate the waiters being rude about her. She did not pay to be treated like that. 

Venetians appear to have very little need to relieve themselves on a regular basis. There is one public restroom at the train station that you have to pay to use and after that, you have to order a meal to use a restaurant’s facilities. Even then they will charge you 2 euros for the privilege of taking up a table. So it was immediately apparent to everyone in the restaurant that this vision of loveliness had ordered the wine only to gain use of the bathroom, and was trying to get away without paying for the drink on top of that. Wine is fabulously cheap in Italy and she was fussing about a $3 beverage. She got on her phone and started loudly complaining about the Eye-talians. The owner was not amused and asked her to leave. She didn’t pay for using the restroom or her half-consumed glass of wine. Mission accomplished. However, she was not satisfied with the outcome and proceeded to take photos of all of the waiters while yelling, “TripAdvisor! TripAdvisor!” The staff shooed her away but she stood across the courtyard furiously typing into her phone, apparently reporting her unforgivable treatment to the TripAdvisor Website right there on the spot. She yelled that she would never be treated like this in America. I almost cheered when the owner chased her down the street.

I was still sitting there with my mouth open, shocked at the entire scene, when all of the waiters and the owner turned around and looked at me. I raised both hands in surrender and said, “I’m Australian,” in a desperate attempt to save my life. The entire restaurant chuckled and clapped. “OK, you’re OK, you can stay” the owner reassured me. Peace returned to the café. I felt guilty for betraying the country that I have called home for most of my life, but there was no way I was going to be associated with that woman. And my unfinished spaghetti was really good. I then had to put on my best Aussie accent, which after all these years is starting to elude me. I didn’t care that I sounded like a Bostonian on Ambien, as long as I distanced myself from that horrible person. I had a great night talking to the waiters and the owner brought me tiramisu and a limoncello on the house. When I asked about opera in the area, he drew a map and directed me to a church that only locals know about. As I was leaving, all the waiters called “ciao” and waved. It was an amazing evening, and one that the awful woman could also have enjoyed if she had shown an ounce of decorum.

I have been an American citizen for a long time. I sound American and am proud to be from a country that accepts who I am and gives me the freedom to live the way I choose. America is an amazing place to live. But many of us apparently do not know how to behave in other people’s countries. I am often astounded by our sense of entitlement.

Here’s the thing; when you leave America, you are entitled to diddly-squat. I don’t care if you are paying $800 a night for the best room on the Grand Canal, you are still a guest. Wikipedia has a page for the term Ugly American and defines it as “a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad.” When they are older, I would like to take my nieces and nephews on an overseas trip and show them how we got this reputation. I have rarely been abroad without experiencing something similar to my Venice story. I am going to make it clear that something very terrible will happen to my kids if I catch them behaving that way. Thankfully they have cultured parents who would never behave like that and they are already exposed to so much outside their Los Angeles lifestyle. As Americans, we have to teach our children to embrace other cultures and show respect and humility when we are fortunate enough to travel. We have to show them how to learn about what is considered offensive there that we might not know about, such as tipping the taxi driver. Show by example how to pick up on social graces we aren’t used to, like addressing an attendant when you enter and leave their shop. Learn enough of their language to say “please” and “thank you” and “I’ll have another glass of red wine please.” It is not that difficult to show that we are trying to be gracious guests when we are in other countries.

Later that night, while flipping through the Italian TV channels in my hotel room, I came across a show that was called Ridiculousness: Very American Idiots. It was the title they gave America’s Funniest Home Videos. ”Well, that’s perfect,” I thought.  “That just makes this night complete.”  I turned the TV off in disgust at the perception of my adopted country, curled up in bed and wished I had someone to sing my sparrow song to. I adore Italy but I was very glad to be going home to my family.