Woman relaxing on the beach in ThailandIf there is one thing that single, childless women don’t want to do it’s turn 40: that miserable place in time where it’s not quite too late for you but not looking good either. I knew that I had two options. I could sit in the bottom of my closet with a bottle of vodka, or I could go somewhere spectacular and pretend it wasn’t happening. That is how I ended up at the top of a skyscraper in Bangkok watching fireworks on my 40th birthday.

I had planned the trip of a lifetime packed with elephants and scuba diving, but I also decided to spend a few days in introspection; kind of like that woman did at an ashram in Eat, Pray Love. I’m a big fan of contrived, life-changing moments. I went to a tiny fishing village that looked like a good idea on the map. The hotel was fancy and remote and promised a Zen-like fantasy. I first became concerned about this decision when the taxi driver at the airport asked me if I was really sure and shook his head. When I arrived, the staff of the hotel were waiting out front, kind of like the servants waiting for the dowager at Downton Abbey.  I thought to myself, “You have now entered the Twilight Zone.” That thought got less and less funny over the next few days.

The receptionist said, “Welcome Miss Mick-esh-e-el-e.” My face froze for a minute so I could think about it. She had seen my passport and turned my middle name, Michelle, into 5 syllables. I smiled in amusement, not realizing that this is what the entire staff of the hotel was going to call me for the next three days. It turned out that I was the only guest in the hotel. It wasn’t just off-season in Thailand, it was off-off season. I would soon be able to answer the question, “Is there such a thing as too much customer service?”

Thai people don’t really drink, so the menus cater to marauding tourists who like umbrellas in their drinks. I usually only drink wine so they dusted off a bottle of warm red that I’m sure they found in a box in a storage room. I said I would take the whole bottle, thinking I would have a glass with dinner and take the rest back to my room, to be enjoyed at my leisure the next day. I ordered noodles and sat back to enjoy Kenny G over the loudspeaker. I took a sip of wine. A waiter leaped forward to refill my glass. I took another sip. Another person from the line behind me refilled the glass.

At that rate I was going to be drunk in no time so I left the glass alone and focused on my noodles. I took a bite and someone stepped forward to push the available spices closer to me. Three more bites and the staff was so bored that when I glanced away to enjoy the view, someone whisked my bowl away. I decided to take a break from the awkward silence and went in the direction of the bathroom. A man jumped in front of me to lead the way, pointing out each step in case I hurled myself down the staircase. He opened the door to the ladies bathroom and waved me through the door. You heard me. He opened the public restroom door. “Well, this just keeps getting creepier,” I thought. A bathroom attendant bowed and directed me into a stall. I was the only guest in the hotel and there was a bathroom attendant waiting for me.

In Thailand, many restrooms don’t have toilet paper. They have a high-pressure hose on a hook next to the toilet. My first encounter with the hose is a story for another day, but it has to be said that I firmly believe that a bathroom where you have to spray yourself with a hose should not have an attendant, just on principle. I eventually went back to my room deflated and discouraged by my weird and lonely evening. My Eat, Pray, Love moment this was not.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes . . . turning 40. Fortunately, my friend, Bree, joined me in Bangkok to stop me from combining both Plan A and Plan B and drinking vodka in a closet in a hotel in Thailand. We walked down a sketchy street one night in search of dinner and an authentic Thai experience, and found a street vendor with a card table in an alley. I pointed at something that looked like chicken and we took our seats in the alley, enjoying the fact that our mothers would have had a heart attack if they knew where we were. There was a waitress of sorts but she seemed disinclined to help us in any way so we decided it was a “help yourself” kind of alley and liberated some water from a fridge.

While we were eating our surprisingly delicious meal on paper plates, I surveyed the terrain and saw a huge skyscraper with a fancy dome at the top that was clearly a restaurant. I told Bree that when we were quite finished scrounging for water and chicken in the alley, we should find that dome. That is how—the next day on my 40th birthday—we ended up in the fanciest open-air restaurant at the top of the largest building in Bangkok, watching fireworks over the river. It was an amazing moment that I couldn’t have planned if I had tried. I teared up on the balcony, grateful that, although my retreat in a fishing village had turned out to be a disaster, a random upward glance from an alley had brought everything together to give me my moment . . . to remind me that life wasn’t ending at 40.

It turns out meaningful experiences can’t always be planned. Those moments find you. They won’t come to you if you are in the bottom of a closet with a bottle of vodka, so you have to put yourself out there. But you also can’t decide when happiness will find you. You just have to trust that it will. It was a surprise but I will never forget the moment when the city of Bangkok put on a fireworks show just for me. Shhh, that’s what happened.

family relationships auntsWhen I’m in a foreign country I try to stick with the local cuisine. I didn’t travel all the way to Thailand to eat pizza, although most menus offer it for the tourists who can’t hold their pad see ew. I make an effort to immerse myself in the culture and learn all about how the locals eat. However, two weeks into curry and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I lost all control in the really touristy part of Phuket. I ordered my native cuisine: tortilla chips and guacamole. (True Los Angelinos refer to it in the familiar tense: “guac.” Chips are implied because how else are you going to get 30 grams of fat into your mouth?) My delicious contraband arrived via a waitress wearing a sombrero. I opted not to mention that the symbol of the sombrero has become derogatory to Southern Californians who think they are sensitive to Mexicans, and I just said, “Gracias.” She apologized and explained that her English was not very good. My margarita (“Marg” for those in the know) was a glass of lime juice so I asked for a shot of tequila. She also did not understand this So Cal linguistic gem. Confusing Thai waitresses in Mexican restaurants is my new favorite pastime.

It turns out guac is a gateway drug. Drunk on jalapeños and cilantro, I forged ahead with fajitas and the guilt set in. This is not how I behave in other countries. I’m not that American who asks for ketchup or points out every McDonalds in excitement. For the record, I counted 43 Mickey D’s in two weeks. Thais are not immune to the “Sandwich for breakfast with pork.”

As a multi-lingual citizen of Earth (I can order red wine in nine dialects) I feel an obligation to behave differently in foreign countries. Thailand was a challenge. Showing anger is a sign of weakness in Thai culture. You can kick a puppy and spit in their green tea and they will still say “sah wah dee khrap!” (Which in my experience either means “Welcome” or “Gullible American in the house!”) You are not supposed to show your First World right to be annoyed when your shuttle to the elephant sanctuary is an hour late or your 4-star hotel room is infested with lizards, which you discover at 3 a.m. The staff will follow you around with their hands clasped in a bow that signals, “No matter how American you behave, we are going to smile and thank you.” How do you threaten to write a bad Yelp review with that going on? There is no place for entitlement in Thailand. It’s refreshing and challenging all at the same time, and I was doing my best to embrace the attitude of those around me. Absorbing myself in their culture was a good reminder to check my own mental outlook.

I was feeling guilty about sitting in a Mexican restaurant listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” playing on a loop on the jukebox. I was betraying my travel-goddess integrity when I should have been slurping up noodles in coconut milk. And then my fajitas arrived, sizzling their love to me on a hot plate. I grabbed a tortilla and created the perfect balance of salsa, sour cream and guac like an expert and took my first glorious bite. Something was not right. Further inspection revealed that the chicken was coated in peanut satay sauce. Most entertaining Mexican restaurant ever.

I have promised to take my niece and nephews travelling with me when they are teenagers. They have decided that means thirteen. I was thinking more like sixteen but I’ve lost that battle on a technicality. While my mind contemplated my opportunity as an aunt to expose them to the world in a way that won’t teach them to be entitled, an Australian blonde in a bikini loudly announced that the glass of lime juice was the best margarita she had ever had. As an Aussie myself, I can confirm that an Australian wouldn’t recognize Mexican food if they sat on it. I decided that this was enough ridiculousness for one day. We all have our limits. I stepped out into a street that bore an unfortunate resemblance to Tijuana, passed the Burger King in my hotel lobby, and fired up the wifi to make a reservation at a guest house in a remote fishing village I had never heard of . . . where I could be guaranteed curry and rice for breakfast.

tribal communitiesWhen I was fourteen I went away to summer camp for the first time. For two weeks I lived in a dorm of fourteen girls and had a great time swimming, canoeing, and flirting with the cute guys in the boys’ dorms. We bonded over team challenges and sports activities, bedtime stories and doing each other’s hair. When I got home, I fell into a post-camp depression. I moped around the house, singing camp songs like they were funeral dirges and generally behaving like a teenager. My mother was very frustrated by my drama. I was frustrated that she didn’t get it and there was no one who could sympathize with what I was feeling. There was no Facebook or email back in the dark ages of my childhood. My mother was a little more understanding when, a few days later, I broke out in the most spectacular case of chicken pox that anyone had ever seen. I’m sure it contributed to my morose disposition. My willingness to share the disease also did little to improve my brother’s attitude. It was a fun summer for my mother.

Looking back, I can understand why I was depressed after such an intense bonding experience. I’ve experienced it many times since. I had lost my tribe. Tribes are a group of people that form around a common goal, a shared interest, or shared experience. We all belong to various tribes. Some are based on important ideals that shape who we are. Some are just trivial and fun. I have a work tribe of people that care about corporate finance and leaving early on Fridays. I have a church tribe, a charity tribe that raises money to cure disease, a tribe of people who read actual books, and a Future Wives of Johnny Depp tribe. For two weeks at summer camp, I had turned the thirteen other girls in my dorm into my tribe.

It used to be that social tribes were limited by geography, but that was before the days of the internet. Now a tribe can be formed by anyone, anywhere. In his book Tribes, author and marketing expert Seth Godin talks about the boom of the tribe phenomenon in the last few decades. “Now the Internet eliminates geography. This mean that existing tribes are bigger, but more important, it means that there are now more tribes, smaller tribes, influential tribes, horizontal and vertical tribes, and tribes that never existed before. Tribes you work with, tribes you travel with, tribes you buy with. Tribes that vote, that discuss, that fight. Tribes where everyone knows your name. . . . There are literally thousands of ways to coordinate and connect groups of people that just didn’t exist a generation ago.” Thanks to social media and the internet, the tribe-forming possibilities available to us are endless.

One of the reasons we naturally form tribes is that they support our faith; faith in God, faith in political ideals, faith in iPhones, faith that one day Johnny Depp will make a watchable movie again. We find ways to connect with other people who share our interests and beliefs so that we feel supported and validated. We remind ourselves of our shared faith every time we put on our work uniform, log onto a fan website, or put a “Save the Planet” bumper sticker on our car. When we don’t feel alone in our goals, we believe that change is possible and that is a very important element in happiness.

The difficult thing about this social tool is that life is always changing and there are times when we cannot avoid being disconnected from a tribe. When we graduate from high school or college, we leave that tribe. We may keep in touch with some friends but we no longer have the structure of classes and the common goal of graduation. When you leave a job or move to another city, there is an adjustment period. We can experience a sense of loss when something we have worked hard for is over. High school football seasons always come to an end. Science fairs and ballet recitals come and go. I have many actor friends who go through post-show blues when the run of a play is over and the people who were sharing that experience are not there every day. When you leave a tribe, whether voluntarily or not, many people go through a grief process.

It’s something to keep in mind when our nieces and nephews are struggling with change. It could be something as major as being cut from the basketball team, or as seemingly trivial as missing your friends from a two week summer camp. Losing a tribe is painful. Some losses can be shaken off easily when a new interest comes up, like school starting or One Direction coming to town. We find new tribes all the time. Others may take some time and a sympathetic ear from an aunt. If your niece or nephew isn’t finding a new tribe to follow, do they have the courage to be a leader and start their own? One of my nieces has two blogs about her interests. One started a pony club and another is building a tribe that supports urban gardening. Those are all things that an aunt can easily encourage.

One of my favorite quotes comes from either someone named Frank A. Clark or the rapper Ludacris. The internet can’t decide. It says, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Losing a tribe can be an unpleasant obstacle, but it can also lead down a path to amazing opportunities and new friends. Starting something new takes courage and commitment but it just might be the cure to those post-tribe blues.

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 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 starting 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 seven-year-old niece last weekend 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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