Posts Tagged ‘being an aunt’

Gratitudes + Beatitudes: Odd Things I’m Grateful For

So, I guess Jupiter entered my astrological sign this fall. Astrologically, Jupiter is the planet of expansion, philosophy, higher learning and just that exciting energy of absorbing and growing and learning. And boy did I get all Jupiteresque in my life this fall: I decided to take a novel-writing course, ramp up my riding lessons, join a Monday-night bowling league…and now I decided at the last minute to do Nanowrimo! Where did I get my crazy pills and why did I take them all at once?

It’s all tremendously fun, but the Nanowrimo-ing is definitely eating into my blogging time. So, in honor of November, I decided I would “focus” and do a series on gratitude, in honor of my favorite holiday feast of the year. People on my Facebook are giving thanks every day leading up to Thanksgiving, and while that’s all cool and I like reading them, I can’t really deal with Facebook so I’m doing it here. Some will be expected in their earnestness, and hopefully other gratitudes will be eccentric and unexpected. Anyway, onward and upward…six things I’m grateful for, one for each day of the month so far.


A car is a strange thing for me to be grateful, because I’m really all for public transportation and have been for much of my life. I didn’t even have a car until this past year. But now I am thankful for my wonky little white Grand Am, not just what utility it provides in my life, but because it’s my favorite place to hear music, and it’s kind of become my other room where I can store my riding things, gym bag, old clothes and weird things that don’t fit in my apartment. But more importantly, my car was given to me by one of my sisters, so every time I drive it, I try to remember that it’s also a symbol of my family’s generosity with one another, which is always a good thing to remember and be thankful for.


The other day in the mail I got a check, a letter, a free book via Paperback Swap, a magazine and a postcard. I felt very much like “Score!”, which is always a good feeling to have in your everyday life, and one that I think we’ve lost over the years, now that everything is electronic. If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that mail service even exists in the first place, bringing you objects from all over the world right to your doorstep. So, mail service, thank you for making it like not-Christmas-but-kind-of-Christmas every now and then, and for being the conduit for many odd, sometimes marvelous things, including weird coupons, trashy catalogs and misdirected mail that makes me indulge in odd speculation over the hobbies of my neighbors.


It’s fun being the crazy auntie because your nephews and nieces aren’t scared to ask you the questions they’re dying to ask but other adults around them avoid. Questions like: “When you die, are we still related?” or “Does God watch me when I’m pooping?” or “Why are people scared of boobies?” I’m thankful for the opportunity to drop some serous concepts on them, like reincarnation, the panopticon and patriarchy, well before they’re old enough to really get them. It also allows me to indulge in my odd fantasy of writing children’s books on feminism and post-structuralism, with titles like “Don’t Be Scared, They’re Just Boobs.” Mostly I just give them straightforward answers to their queries, and then I get into trouble later. But that’s kind of fun as well, because then I get to explain the ideas of panopticon and patriarchy to their parents!


Oh my god, can you imagine trying to blog BY HAND? Or freaking typing out a novel on a typewriter? Or doing Nanowrimo with just a pen and a spiral notebook? Imagine how long it would take to validate your word count! Seriously, though, every time I want to throw my computer out the window because it’s pissing me off, I try to remember just how much in my life computers have possible: art, friendship, communication, jobs, kitten videos. I’m still pissed off, but it keeps me from inflicting extraordinary levels of violence upon inanimate objects.


I remember my first memory of a hot tub. It was the 1980s, and I was over at my friend Becky’s house. Becky lived with her divorced father without any brothers and sisters, which I always found a rather mystical, interesting, almost glamorous situation. Becky’s dad had a Tom Selleck-like mustache, and he was fond of popping the collars on his polo shirts, which I also found really strange yet fascinating. (Wow, I was easily intrigued as a 7-year-old, wasn’t I? I must’ve been more sheltered than I thought.)

Becky’s dad installed a hot tub in their basement, and I remember we went down to look at it once. It was surrounded by empty bottles of wine coolers, and a bikini top was strewn off to the side. Becky held it up and we went “Ewwwwwwww!!!!” and ran upstairs and threw it in the garbage. I mean, we didn’t know what happened down there in the hot tub, but WE KNEW. I could never really look at Becky’s dad straight in the eye after that, and hot tubs became associated with divorced-dad-having-a-midlife-crisis sex in my mind for a long time. Which is kind of ewww-inducing, and ever since, it’s been like, “You’re a divorced dad? My ovaries just shriveled up!”

Luckily I got over that. Now I’m grateful for hot tubs, especially the ones at my gym, because they’re nice stopgaps in between massages, and I swear I’d have shoulder and neck problems if it wasn’t for hot water jets’ relaxation powers. But God help me if I ever go on a date with a divorced dad who tries to wrangle my bikini top off while plying me with Bartles & Jaymes.


Okay, parents are not such an odd thing to be grateful for. I mean, how can we not be thankful for the people who give you life? My parents raised me, made sure I didn’t die from stupidity and somehow love me in ways both perfect and imperfect everyday, even when I am a knucklehead. They also let me use their laundry machines, feed me copious amounts of food when I come over, take my car to get its oil changed because I’m scared of talking to mechanics, give me bowling tips from their heyday as champions of the sport in the 70s, hug me when I am sad, re-pot my plants and guilt me into various things that I know I should do but avoid. In all my teenage arrogance, they once seemed to me to be really boring, but now I realize they are the humblest, wisest, gentlest people I know, with extraordinary compassion and acceptance. What would I do without my mom and dad? A lot, probably, but only about 40 percent of it would be anything good.

What We Learn When We Learn About Love

Every Tuesday, I meet my sister and her kids for a quick supper right at 6:15pm. She’s usually between dance and tae kwon do classes for the kiddos; I’m on my way to the gym. It’s a nice way to see my family and catch up quickly, and chat with my sister. Last week I was telling her about celebrating my sweetheart’s birthday with dinner with his parents over the weekend. My five-year-old nephew was listening in on the conversation, and he cocked his head when he heard this and said, “Wow, you must really love him!” his eyes all huge and amazed.

I laughed, of course, because it was a funny thing to say, like Oh my god, such a hard thing to do for someone, having dinner with their parents! (It’s not, really: I like my sweetheart’s parents a lot.) But it was also startling, because I realized that my nieces and nephews are watching my grown-up life in their way, observing and learning and maybe even taking notes for when they’re older. I’m of course deeply interested in my own experience of my relationship, as well as my sweetheart’s experience of it — that we’re both happy and content and growing together. But I had never really considered before what my niece and nephews are picking up from me. It’s a strange shift in perspective to consider, to look at my love life through the eyes of my favorite little monsters. (more…)

On Telling Stories to Children

I’m not a mother, but children are a big part of my life. I’m a doting auntie and I see my nephews and nieces a lot. They are a big reason why I moved away from NYC and back to my region of origin. I get the distinction of being the “crazy aunt” with them because I lived in a big city and I dress weird and sometimes I drop an unintentional swear-bomb. (I know, I know. I try hard, but sometimes they just slip out! Especially when driving!)

But mostly my role as the eccentric Uncle Jesse equivalent in my own personal “Full House” involves me telling stories to entertain the kiddos. They’re always wanting to play “Story Hour,” and let me tell you — I had some tough instructors in my writing classes, but they were not nearly as tough as this pint-sized set. The minute one of my stories get boring, they simply walk away. Tough crowd!

Kids are so ruthless when it comes to stories. They don’t care so much about evocative language, beautiful atmospherics or penetrating insight. They like action, they like boldly yet simply drawn characters, they like happy, triumphant endings, and a dose of silliness at the right moment doesn’t hurt, either.

The minute something gets slow, or boring, their wide eyes begin to glaze over, they get fidgety, and before you know it, they’ve dissed you for some Barbie coloring book or a wrestling match with their Real Steel action figures, and you’re sitting there like last year’s Disney sitcom princess in rehab.

Funnily enough, I get super-terrified when my nephews and niece demand a story from me. I’ve pitched managers and agents before, but telling stories to the kids in my life makes me even more nervous for some weird reason. Not nervous exactly, but I definitely feel the need to stay alert and responsive in a way that doesn’t exist when it’s just me, my imagination and my fingers flying over the keyboard.

Being the kids’ storyteller makes me remember that stories are, on a basic level, meant to be entertaining: meant to draw people in, meant to enchant and, above all, captivate. You have to weave a spell, and weave it quickly.

There’s kind of a stage fright for oral storytelling, of course, but there’s also the pressure of having to weave a story on the spot. You start to understand how techniques like repetition, stock characters and build-up are so enduring: they help you vamp for time while trying to cook up something new.

But being put on the spot has its unexpected benefits, too: having to invent right then and there makes you un-precious about the act of creation itself. There’s no time or room to be perfectionistic; you simply have to go for it. I’ve definitely had moments when I’ve wondered, in the middle of telling a story, Oh god, what am I going to put in this magic cupboard to keep the kids interested? And then I look at the groceries on the table and think, A haunted bag of potato chips! (They loved that.)

The saving grace of telling stories to kids is that they like to hear the same story over and over again. More than like: they LOVE hearing the same story again and again, repeated ad nauseum. It’s like writing draft after draft, reworking certain crowd-pleasing elements to bring them to the fore and ruthlessly dropping what doesn’t work. It’s live testing in the moment: a quiet hush and wide eyes means it’s working, but the minute my nephew starts punching on his sister, I know that it’s not. (And that’s when I get to yell, “I don’t care who started it, I just know that it needs to STOP!” And then I become slightly terrified that I’m sounding like my mother.)

Anyway: I’ve come to embrace the times when one of my get-along gang demands a story from me. It’s so much fun, and such a good exercise I’m almost convinced writing programs should have an on-going exercise in telling stories to kindergartners. It’s oddly terrifying, but hearing all those kids cheer when you get to that hard-won happy ending feels more viscerally pleasing than anything. Well, almost anything: not quite as good as getting all hugs and kisses from my favorite little ones for taking the time to tell them a tale in the first place.

A moment during a storm

It had been oppressive all day; I should’ve known that storms were coming from the way the air felt heavy and the smells grew sharp in the late afternoon. My niece, nephews and I even tried going for a walk, but clouds moved in quickly, winds began whipping the tree branches back and forth, and a smattering of rain hit us just as we turned back, screaming with a kind of fear and delight as gusts of cooler air rushed forth.

Still it was a surprise when the tornado sirens went on and stayed on, wailing loudly in the air. We piled in the basement, and even as branches flew off trees and the air turned dark and violent, the kids ran riot over the boxes of old toys, my youngest sister’s old poster of Kurt Cobain as a child looking down benevolently upon us, tacked up like an afterthought with the rest of her early teenage detritus.

“Who’s Kurt Cobain?” my oldest nephew asked.

“He was in a band called Nirvana.”

“Was he famous?”

“Well, he’s on a poster, so he is on some level.”

My nephew looked at the years of Cobain’s birth and death under the picture. “Why did he die so young?”

“He killed himself.”

My nephew took that in for a moment, puzzling it out. He’s 11. He had questions about the Rapture all weekend, and wanted to know how it differed from the apocalypse that’s supposed to happen in 2012.

We looked out the window together for a moment, watching the squall outside, and inwardly I worried about being so straightforward about suicide. He’s at a tricky age, where in some ways he’s so mature but in others he’s still so innocent.

“Why did he do it?”

“He was very troubled. But so are a lot of people, and they don’t go that far.”

He thought about it for a moment. “What do you do with troubles?” He sounded worried and somber, even for a fairly serious kid.

Oh, what a question, I thought to myself as the sirens wailed louder and the thunderstorm grew. What a question to begin growing up with.