Sneakiness Is Not Genetic . . . Right?

I was swimming with my nine-year-old nephew, Rider, on a hot summer afternoon. We were doing cartwheels and somersaults off the diving board until I remembered that I am not nine anymore and pulled a muscle I didn’t know existed. I quickly changed the game into a floating competition. We talked about his adventures at summer camp and school, but every conversation with Rider turns into a story about a video game in about 30 seconds. He went on and on about a game he likes that involves skeletons, zombies, and building forts. I listened to a full description of the challenges at each level and still can’t tell you the point of the game. Rider finished his excited tale of monster-slaying architecture and whined, “But Dad doesn’t let me play it because it’s about zombies.” I said, “Yes, well zombies are evil and scary so I can see why he doesn’t like you playing it.” Such a good aunt, backing up my brother’s parenting decision.

“But they don’t even look like zombies! They have a green block for a head and blue blocks for a body.”

“Then how did Daddy know they are zombies?”

“I told him.”

My brain immediately leapt into action and valiantly tried to wrestle my tongue into submission. But it was too late. I heard myself say, “Well, there’s your problem.”

I was an extremely sneaky child. It’s really not surprising that I am encouraging that behavior in the next generation. My mother has quite a repertoire of stories that occasionally get dusted off at family dinners. She used to keep chocolate-covered almonds in a candy dish in the living room. I thought I was exceptionally clever and I would take one every few days and put them in a plastic sandwich bag that I hid in a space between the stairs and the organ. The ’70s shag carpet hid it perfectly. (Yes, I know I totally breezed over it but we had an organ. It was cool in the ’70s. Try not to let that distract you from the story.) One day I clued my little brother into the inventive scheme and showed him my stash. I don’t remember him being as impressed as me, but he was five so I probably ignored his ignorance. I knew a brilliant plan when I saw one. It turns out when you remove candy from a bowl, one by one in carefully timed intervals, the remaining pieces don’t magically reproduce. My mother did eventually notice that something was amiss and staged an inquisition in my father’s office. He sat behind his desk like a judge holding court and surveyed the two children standing before him. My mother presented the charges. As the oldest I was cross examined first and adamantly denied all knowledge of the wayward chocolate-covered almonds. It was a mystery indeed. Benedict Arnold caved immediately. The stash was retrieved as my parents no doubt exchanged looks that said, “So she didn’t eat the candy, she just stuck it in a bag behind the organ? This has to come from your side of the family.” That candy dish now sits on my bookshelf, a proud monument to my genius.

Since he was merely an innocent bystander whose only crime was not telling on me sooner, my brother came away unscathed . . . a lesson that would serve him well in future endeavors. I tried so hard to teach him my sneaky ways but he was really bad at it. He would cave under interrogation every time and point the finger at me. As far as I know, he didn’t learn to lie to our parents until high school (when my training finally came into its own.) Kids aren’t born sneaky and this cautionary tale clearly demonstrates that shared genetic pools don’t create partners in crime. So kids have to learn to be sneaky. How do I, as the single, inexperienced, slightly irresponsible aunt, stop myself from contributing to their education?

I did some research and found an awful lot of people on the Internet posting queries like. “My kid is a sneaky thief. How do I stop this behavior?” We’ve had the Internet for quite some time now and yet people still open themselves up for public, anonymous comments from anyone who is bored and opinionated. Why do they do that? Do they really want the whole world to chime in on their personal problems? It is a question that blows my mind on a daily basis. From what I have observed, rarely do the people who feel the need to comment on random posts offer up anything useful. Most of the responses I read involved shaming kids in inventive ways, beating it out of them or shipping them off to boot camp. Among my favorites:

“Your child is a thief and a liar who is going to jail one day. Start whipping him before it’s too late.”

“Being sneaky is great. It got me where I am now.”

“Clearly you are giving your child too much sugar.”

“Ignore the fact that he is lying to you, and it won’t be such a big deal.”

I couldn’t find anything helpful to me as the aunt (either real or imagined) of a group of young children that are likely to grow sneakier as they develop out of the cute stage and into pre-teens. The thing is that I’m not the one who has to manage the discipline. If they lie to me, I’ll just tell on them and let their parents deal with it. I love them with all my heart but I am an adult first and their buddy second. What I will do is try to be a good example. My record is not impressive in that area, but we all need goals to strive for. I have decided to provide a safe environment for them where they will not be judged for their honesty, unless it’s really bad and my silence gets me in trouble. I will also not encourage them in their deceit, now that the whole zombie game incident is over. I will be honest with them and build a relationship that they treasure enough that they won’t want to break my trust by lying to me. This from the woman whose niece snuck out of bed, stole her phone, and took a photo of her sleeping. Time to put a password on the iPhone.

Right now my young nephew is innocently offering up information that will work against him, because like my brother, he hasn’t developed the sneaky streak that his aunt (and apparently his sister) so readily exploited. But time is friend to no one and my brother is only a few short years away from his teenager getting his hands on a packet of cigarettes, trying them out in the backyard with his friends when his parents aren’t home and hiding the butts in a crack in the garden wall. Not that I would know personally, but I hear that kind of stuff happens. All I can do is draw upon my knowledge as a rehabilitated adult and be honest and straightforward with the kids, and let them know that I am here to listen without judgment or collusion. And hope that my theory of genetics not being a factor is actually true.

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Best Babysitter Ever

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In the Case of Loud Music v. Sleep Deprived Mother, the Crazy Lady Wins

Last night our delightful upstairs neighbor decided to work on his DJ skills. He turned up the bass, and for three hours we listened to our rattling windows and pounding ceiling as he dropped his sick beats: Bom shcht, bom shcht, bom shcht.

Around 11 p.m., the baby was reaching the stage known as “losing it” which is briefly entertaining because she snorts like a piglet when she’s desperately trying to get the air back into her lungs. I laugh every time. But “losing it” comes with a lengthy recovery process and Priscilla was dangerously close to the edge herself, so she marched upstairs with Valentina on her hip, knocked on the door and rang the doorbell. No answer. Bom shcht, bom shcht, bom shcht. She went around to an open-air walkway that gave her a view of the apartment patio. Through the open sliding door she could see a college-age kid sitting behind an array of soundboards and turntables, completely unaware of the unhinged mother looming outside.

Through my bedroom window I heard her voice reverberate around the apartment courtyard as she yelled from the walkway; “Excuse me, I live directly below you. I’ve been trying to get this baby to sleep for three hours now. Could you please turn it down?” I was stunned and amused, trying to imagine the look on the oblivious boy’s face. The party girl who loves music and would stay out dancing until the sun came up just yelled at the neighbors like a cranky, old lady. She came back downstairs and said, “Jo! I did it!” I jumped out of bed enthusiastically and said, “I know! The whole building heard you! Good for you!” And we high-fived.

Somewhere around 2 a.m., the downstairs neighbors decided the balcony was a great place to enjoy their weed and a very loud conversation about their “crazy bitches.” Then at 4am the fire alarm went off . . . four times. The next day, Priscilla starting looking up houses for rent and while I focused on getting through the day at work without killing anyone. We are so moving out of this frat house.

I wonder if there comes a time when you feel as old as you actually are? Priscilla and I are not mentally old enough to be yelling at the kids to turn down their rock and roll. It wasn’t that long ago that Hotel Security in Vegas did the same thing to us, was it? But we are certainly physically old enough to need peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep, and authoritative enough to make that happen. So it’s kind of a shock when the young person you imagine yourself to be starts a celebratory dance in the living room because you won the battle with a college kid who was disturbing the peace. Motherhood (and overly involved aunthood) changes things in strange little ways. Emboldened by our victory, we’ve set our sights on the slob who leaves his garbage in the hall. Two crazy women jumping out of a hallway, yelling at him to pick up his trash. I’ll bet he won’t see that coming.

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Baby Yoga: How is this a thing?

Baby YogaLos Angeles is a special place. In this town we sunbathe in January and wear Ugg boots in summer. If you are really trendy you eat food made in the back of a truck that you located from a Twitter post, and everything you order comes with avocado. The locals talk about June gloom and earthquake weather, and the freeways shut down if it rains. My workout at the gym was interrupted by a film crew who were passing through to scout the location. I seemed to be the only one worried about finding myself on television in stretch pants, as no one else gave the army of tanned, coiffed, latté carrying production assistants a second glance. “What a special, special place,” I thought to myself.

So it was not a huge surprise when I found myself in a baby yoga class with Priscilla. I didn’t know babies were into yoga but I’m new to this childrearing thing so what do I know? Sitting in a circle, the ladies went around the room and introduced themselves and accompanying props, I mean, children. I surveyed the group to see what kind of infants have developed a yoga practice. Lily was screeching like she had just discovered her voice and was excited about sharing the news. Michael was passed out with his limbs sprawled like a drunk on Sunday morning. Yoga was clearly not his thing. Grace was getting a snack from her mother who was not shy about nudity. This was an anything goes kind of deal. Three-month-old Valentina sat quietly in Priscilla’s lap with eyes as wide as saucers. After announcing names and ages, the mothers struck a brass bowl like a gong and held one of their baby’s feet to the metal. None of the babies seemed to react or care about this vibration ritual. Drunk Mike didn’t even stir. “Huh,” I thought. That was it. I was reserving actual judgment for when it got really weird. Priscilla introduced me as her friend and then her face flashed that look that we are both now very familiar with that says, “Everyone here thinks we are lesbians.” In panic she quickly threw in, “We live together.” So glad we cleared that up.

With intros, gong banging, and foot vibrations over, we moved into warm-up stretches. I was the only one who did not bring my own baby barbell, so the teacher produced a stuffed elephant. I was self-conscious for a moment but then I noticed that the room had erupted into chaos. Mike woke up and wasn’t happy about his hangover. Gretchen had escaped her mat and was crawling over the top of Lily’s mom. A kid whose name I didn’t catch had a diaper situation going on and everyone else was crying. Valentina continued to stare in amazement at the spectacle. I closed my eyes and focused on my Ujjayi breathing.

The next move involved holding the babies over our heads, and Priscilla has not developed mommy arms yet. Valentina is still a light weight and her mother has taken a moral stand against pushups. She crapped out half way through the hold and handed her barbell to me in a baby/elephant exchange that worked to her advantage. I did the next set of lunges with a confused child held tightly against my tummy, and then it was her turn. The babies were placed on their own yoga mats while scarves and essential oils were handed around. Every baby calmed down as they were massaged with lavender, tickled with scarves, and stretched into various positions. They seemed to enjoy being the center of attention. What do you know, babies do like yoga! The elephant was the only one who was indifferent. Of course, it would be my kid.

The calm respite of oiling and stretching ended and we set the babies aside for a time-out. We stretched out flat on the ground and followed the instruction to focus on an imaginary bubble of safety around us. While I desperately tried to visualize my bubble and control my gag reflex, the teacher chanted and banged the Gong of Tranquility. I knew this was going to get weird. Good thing I saved up all that judgment. My bubble of cynicism was suddenly pierced by the screaming cries of those who were clearly not enjoying their own bubbles. Or perhaps they were objecting to being awakened from their massage stupor by a gong. Whoever named that thing was seriously misguided.

In any case, I did not waste much time wondering whether this might be the first of many hours to be spent in baby yoga class.  Lesson learned is that “baby yoga” is nothing more than regular yoga in a room full of screaming babies—which is as stressful as it sounds. Valentina is not much of a crier and her mellow personality is perfectly suited to imaginary bubble, essential oil, scarf waving activities. But I think her mama and Tia Jo can use her as a barbell in our own living room, without the crying. LA is my home and I want to embrace its scene but I think I am going to have to pass the gong and wish the yoga mommies a heartfelt baby Namaste.

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PTSD and other Side Effects of Parenting

Priscilla had an appointment so I offered to look after 6-week-old Valentina alone for the first time. She slept for the first hour and I took cocky photos and posted obnoxious comments about how this babysitting thing was a breeze. Then she needed her diaper changed. I removed the diaper with confidence, wrapped it up and deposited it in the trash. Before I could acquire the new diaper, however, Valentina started peeing on the changing table mattress. What is it about taking off a kid’s diaper that makes that happen? Is it a “Pavlov’s dog” kind of thing? I panicked and put my hand over the pee fountain to try to contain the mess but that just spread it all over her clothes. I sighed in exasperation and asked her if she was done. One of us thought it was funny. I had carefully begun removing the urine soaked onesie when she started to poop. Again, I can’t explain my reflex. I pulled her up by her ankles with one hand and stuck my other hand under her bottom. As I stood next to the changing table, staring at the growing pile of poop in my hand, I had a flashback to the Great Vomit Incident of 2006.

I don’t talk about it much, although I’m told trauma therapists promote sharing your experiences as a path to healing from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I feel that burying them deep inside is also pretty effective. Back when my brother’s first child was two, I flew out from New York in hopes that the next kid would arrive on her due date and I would be there for the birth. She was very late and I missed the whole thing but that’s got nothing to do with my trauma. I was sitting in the back of the car on the way to a BBQ, trying to keep my nephew, Rider, distracted and happy. He was fussy but I did my best. I sang the stupid animal songs my brother, Jim, had running in the CD player and made faces at Rider for his amusement. I don’t know whether aunts have anything like maternal instinct, but a moment came when I realized that this child was about to throw up. Before I had time to consider the implications of my actions, I stuck my arms out and cupped my hands together in front of him. Rider immediately ralphed into my hands like I had given him a bucket. He sat back in his car seat clearly relieved, like that went well.

I, on the other hand, was now holding a bowl of vomit. Had I minded my own business on the other side of the car, this vile slime would have been all over the back of my brother’s seat, an alternative I should have chosen in retrospect. I sat in shock, staring at my hands while Jim pulled the car over in a fancy neighborhood. Because this situation wasn’t humiliating enough, I carefully climbed out and deposited my load on the grass in front of someone’s house in Beverly Hills. Jim dumped out the overflow that had spilled into the car seat, while I went through an entire package of wet wipes hoping no one was watching us. Back in the car I sat in stunned silence thinking to myself, “What just happened?”

This memory raced through my mind like a thunderbolt as I stood holding Valentina’s excrement. It’s called a flashback in the world of PTSD. Shock had rendered useless the signals from my brain and I stood frozen for a minute, looking from my hand to the baby in bewilderment. When I regained full use of my faculties, I cleaned the perpetrator and put her in new PJs, and everything within a 5-foot radius of us went into the washing machine. Note to self: next time grab a towel, or a wipe or something. Seriously.

This baby thing gets less . . . disgusting, right?

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Baby’s First Excursion: Please Don’t Die

A few weeks after Valentina’s birth, Priscilla grew tired of cabin fever. She had been on bed rest before the delivery and now she was confined to the apartment with a premature infant that had to be woken every two hours for feedings. She was such a sleepy baby that this was actually a challenge. We couldn’t keep her awake long enough to finish a whole 2-ounce bottle. A mother of three told me we should put a wet washcloth on the bottom of her feet while she’s eating. Priscilla was horrified at the thought of abusing her little angel that way so I let her figure it out.

We decided the best way to introduce Valentina to the world was to take her to a mall . . . in Hollywood . . . on Christmas Eve. I will confess I was one of those people who didn’t understand why it takes people with a baby so long to get ready to go anywhere. It’s a diaper bag and a stroller, people. Get it together. Then I went on an outing orchestrated by two women who were using a stroller and car seat for the first time. It went like this:

10 mins: I had proudly assembled the stroller but now we couldn’t get it to unfold. We scratched our heads and looked at each other when kicking and shaking it proved ineffective. Somehow it popped itself open. It is clearly possessed.

05 mins: We got the bags, stroller and car seat down the elevator to the parking lot.

15 mins: The car seat we brought wasn’t the one that snaps into the stroller so Priscilla had to go back for the other one, which was meant for my car. Meanwhile, I surveyed the mess in the back of her car. She didn’t know about the base hooks that snap it into the loops in every car made since the 90s, so it was in the middle and three seatbelts were crisscrossed like a spider web. It was impressive really. I wish I’d taken a photo.

20 mins: I climbed into the backseat of her convertible and broke a sweat trying to pry the seatbelts loose, which had been wrenched tight and were so twisted into knots that I couldn’t untie them. I still don’t understand how it was accomplished. Priscilla came back to find her kid sitting alone outside the car and me colorfully expressing my astonishment.

10 mins: The car seat was properly installed but the stroller didn’t fit into her two-door Volkswagen Beatle. We jammed it in this way and that until we finally had it wedged into the front seat. I sat in the back seat with the baby. The Beatle realized its days were numbered.

An hour. It took us an hour to get from our apartment to the driveway. I humbly apologize to new parents everywhere.

We arrived at The Grove, a swanky outdoor mall where Mario Lopez flexes his muscles on his daily tabloid TV show. We got a crow bar, pried the stroller out of the front seat, and started off on Valentina’s first adventure. We felt good as we entered the mall, in complete denial about how many people would be shopping on Christmas Eve. Priscilla proudly proclaimed, “We can do this. She’s not the boss of us.” I think they call that foreshadowing.

We had dinner and Valentina predictably slept through it. People walked by and complimented us on our cute baby. I decided Priscilla had better get used to me just saying, “Thank you.” I’m not going to waste my time explaining this unorthodox situation to every passerby, and if strangers want to think that this adorable little person is mine, I’m OK with that.

Suddenly, Valentina started fussing. She had slept through her first three weeks of life so this was a new phenomenon. We paid the bill, snuggled her back in the stroller, and headed to the car through the crowd. The baby started wailing. We picked up the pace. We dodged our way around comedian Louis Anderson trying to say goodbye to his mother while pushy tourists grabbed onto him and tried to take a picture. I was in a hurry but still had time to think, “Let the poor man hug his mother!” Valentina continued to scream all the way down the length of the mall, with me in front rudely parting the sea of people to make room for the stroller like an ice-breaking lead ship. Priscilla kept patting the cover of the stroller protectively like monsters were about to jump out of the bushes and attack her child at any time.

We made it to the parking lot and, in a crowded elevator, Priscilla reached her last nerve and said to the stroller, “Please don’t die!” I rolled my eyes, which is no small thing. I’m very good at it.

So there it was. The first outing of a little girl and her inexperienced mother and aunt. And while our confidence has not been completely shot down, we did come away with one painful realization. We are not the boss of anything.

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Delivery Rooms: Not For the Faint at Heart

screamingMy whole life my mother assured me that childbirth was nothing like it is in the movies. Women didn’t really scream bloody murder as they are giving birth. That was all Hollywood drama. I was raised believing that it was a beautiful miracle, and not at all like those scenes of people screaming like their insides were being torn apart. I’ve been there. It’s just like the movies.

My high school friend Priscilla and I moved in together and had a good thing going for a while. We were pushing 40 but that didn’t stop us from being the kind of fun girls who stored multiple bottles of vodka in the freezer and didn’t own a wine-rack (because it wasn’t sticking around that long.) We kept ourselves amused with salsa dance classes, underground restaurants with no signs, and hanging out at rooftop bars in Venice Beach. We were the kind of Los Angelinos who went wine tasting in Malibu and then hit up a burlesque dance class just to prove we could. And a year later, here I was in the delivery room, holding her hand as she pushed a little human being out into the world.

At 4am I left our apartment in my pajamas and headed to the hospital where Priscilla had been for a week, trying to keep her premature little girl in the oven. Miss Valentina had her own plan; a sinister plan that involved 20 hours of torturing her Aunty Jo . . . I mean mother. Thankfully the Starbucks across the street knows that they serve the hospital community and I was able to procure supplies at 4:30am. Somewhere around labor hour 18, Priscilla was clinging to the side of the bed cursing like a sailor so I found the cute anesthesiologist in the hallway. He was surprised that the 12 hours of epidural and half hourly doses of narcotics weren’t doing their job. I suggested that he should not overestimate her pain tolerance. He came into the delivery room and looked at his little charts while the patient gave him her best death stare, breathing “who who heeeeee, who who heeeee.” The conversation lagged so I broke the silence by announcing that I’m never having sex again. I meant it.

After 20 hours of labor and quite a few doses of narcotics, Priscilla decided that all of this (meaning the watermelon descending through her vagina) would stop if she could just block the Pitocin drip. Pitocin is a drug they give to women who have been screaming in pain for 20 hours to make the labor progress. Stopping it at this point was not an option but that didn’t deter Priscilla from clawing at the tubes like a crazy person and trying to pinch them shut. My tolerance also reached an all-time low.

And then all of a sudden it was time. When you register at a hospital they ask you to write out your birth plan so that the nurses know what you want. My birth plan was, “Stay away from the business end.” I was doing quite well, holding her hand and gently dabbing her forehead with a cold wash cloth. Then our nice, sweet nurses who had been patient with Priscilla’s low pain tolerance disappeared and the Labor Nazi arrived. We had been in the hospital for a week trying to delay this premature birth and we had met some lovely nurses that Priscilla really liked. However, when it was go-time a woman we had never met marched in and said, “Alright Priscilla, we can do this your way, or we can do it mine and have this over in 10 minutes.” After a whole day of horrible labor, we both hated her instantly and that was all the motivation Priscilla needed. She focused that death stare on the new enemy and pushed like her life depended on it. These people knew what they were doing.

Things were not moving fast enough so Priscilla said to me, “Can you see her?” I hesitated for a moment. Running a reconnaissance mission to the business end was not in the birth plan. But I got over myself and peeked at the little mass of black hair that was arriving. Then the Nazi Nurse positioned a pair of scissors to “make room” for the baby and I immediately scurried back to my post at the safe end. I never ever want to see anything like that ever again.

A few minutes later there was a little, pink thing screaming her lungs out, which was music to our ears. The Intensive Care unit was rushed in to clear out her lungs, which created 20 minutes of drama we didn’t need, but by 1am, little Valentina was cuddling with her Mom, and Aunty Jo was ready to pass out.

In retrospect, it was probably the best thing a single, childless woman facing menopause could experience. I can honestly say that it is nothing I ever want to experience for myself. It was the longest 20 hours of my life and none of it was happening to me. The moment that little girl appeared was a magical moment that made me cry. I don’t deny watching a life coming into this world is an amazing thing. But I also have the memories of her mother losing her mind and having her vagina stitched back together. But there is a little human asleep in a bassinet on the floor and I’m excited to see where this life is going to take us.

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