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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Today With My Blood Pressure ...

I'm so pissed ...really steamed ... and I blame it all on Labor Day! That was the weekend when it all came to a head and I was "put in my place," or so that's how it was related to a family friend who likes to gossip. The holiday will never be the same again!!

Let me give you some background. Every year since I was a small child, my family has always hosted a major picnic/cookout on Labor Day or sometimes the day before. Once my parents were gone, my oldest brother took over the tradition, but the last few years we have held the gathering at my sister's place because she has the most space and good street parking. It's just family and close friends but the number of attendees is close to 30. This year, we were all sitting down at tables and in lawn chairs and on sundry "perches" when I noticed my sister's daughter ... my 14-year-old niece talking loudly on her cell phone. I admit I have a thing about cell phones and how they bring out the rudeness in people ... it's really a pet peeve I need to work on. Anyway, I casually walked over to where she was sitting and asked her nicely to put her phone away and enjoy the day with the rest of us.

"In a minute," she replied and turned her head away from me to continue talking.

I walked around to her other side and said quite firmly. "Now!" She grinned, playfully flipped me off, and went right on with her conversation.

With a good head of steam, I sat my food down on a nearby table and placed my hand lightly over her phone. "Seriously ... you're gonna act like that. Can't you call them back in an hour and at least act like you're happy to see these people and carry on a few real conversations?" She looked at me with these big, uncomprehending eyes. "Hell, ask whoever you're talking to to come over and join the party. The brauts are great!"

My niece made apologies to her phone buddy, made some comment about "adults," and pocketed her cell. I returned to my seat and mouthed a "thank you" in her direction. The heated look she gave me ... had it been a corporeal thing ... would have incinerated me on the spot.

Just as I was raising a forkful of colorful pasta salad to my mouth, my sister appeared and nicely asked me if I could help her with something in the kitchen. The fact that she asked "nicely" should have been my first warning sign. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON ... DANGER!!

We had barely entered the kitchen and closed the door before my sister turned on me, her face distorted like a snarling beast. "What the hell was that little 'show' all about?" she demanded. "What gives you the right to embarrass my daughter like that?!"

"Huh?" I stammered. I was genuinely perplexed.

"It's none of your damn business when my daughter uses her cell phone or texts her friends. You're her uncle, not her warden." My sister threw her hands in the air and added, "Oh, you're not a parent ... you can't understand!"

I imagined my self being slapped in the face with a leather glove. I suddenly was not in the mood for my sister's routine histrionics and superior attitude. "You know what?" I challenged. "I may not have kids, but it doesn't take a genius to recognize bad manners. You have guests and it wouldn't kill your daughter to act like she belonged to this family. She's been glued to that cell for two hours. I haven't even seen her speak to Chet's dad ... her one living grandparent who drove an hour to be here. That ought to be what you're concerned about, Sis!!"

I'd crossed a line, but it felt damn good. Just as my sister was forming her retort, the patio door slid open and my oldest brother entered the kitchen. "Jesus, you guys ... we can hear the yelling outside!"

My sister just pointed at me ... the ultimate defense and explanation all rolled into one simple gesture. "Tell him ... he's the one telling me how to raise my kids!"

"Of come on ..." I started to say, but then I noticed my brother. His posture got ramrod straight and he crossed his arms in a very judgmental manner.

"Oh, I understand what you're saying all to well. He's been riding Adam's ass for months about college. Our 'little baby brother' just thinks everything is so simple. And for him it must be, 'cause he's got ALL the answers!" I just stood there, my mouth working like a landed trout. But no words came out. I was really dumbfounded. And hurt.

Adam is my 17-year-old nephew and I love him like a son. He's just a great kid and I actually consider him a friend. But from time to time, Adam needs a little push to get him motivated. Last May, right before his junior year in high school came to a close, I attempted to engage him in a conversation about college. I didn't think I was pushing ... I just tried to get him to articulate his interests and draw him out about careers he was considering. Like I said, he's a good kid with good grades and a bright future. And to be honest, getting him out from under his father's thumb and onto a progressive college campus would NOT be the worst thing to happen. Anyway, Adam's responses were terse and noncommittal. His one thought was that he would "probably" go wherever Karrie, his current girlfriend, decided to attend.

"Is that a smart way to plan your future?" I blurted it out before my brain's sensor (or censor) had a chance to kick in.

Adam and I were sitting in the kitchen working our way through a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches I had whipped up. His father ... my older brother by nearly a decade ... was in the adjacent great room perusing the newspaper's sports section. "Ignore him, Adam," he yelled in with a surprisingly flat, emotionless tone. "He just likes to tell people what to do." I dropped the subject and turned my attention to the suddenly-unappetizing sandwich.

Over the next few weeks, Adam and his indecision over college plagued me. I spent some free time going online to about 14 or 15 college Web sites within the state. I picked about half private institutions and half larger public universities to get a good mix. The list conveniently included the Alma maters of myself and each of my siblings. From all the data I found, I assembled a matrix that included projected tuition and fee amounts, admission office phone numbers and e-mails, prominent programs, school colors and mascots, and even the estimated "drive time" from my brother's house to each campus. And ... most importantly in my mind ... I included all "visitation" and "exploration" programs scheduled for the summer and early autumn months. What a great, low pressure time to check out some potential schools!, I had been thinking at the time. The majority of the colleges I had researched had one or more "Freshman Fridays" or "Openhouse Picnics" events in June and July and August. I e-mailed the matrix to Adam, his father, and my sister-in-law separately. No one ever responded with so much as a thank you. I also tried on three face-to-face occasions to engage Adam in another "thought anymore about college" discussion. Each time he just shrugged and changed the subject. By my estimation, as of Labor Day, Adam and his parents had missed close to a dozen opportunities to explore some very fine collegiate options.

Back in the present in my sister's Mediterranean kitchen, I pled my case. "I wasn't trying to push you or Adam ... I just don't want him to miss out on something. A lot of kids are already collecting recommendations from teachers and employers. A lady at work has a daughter writing entrance essays for three separate schools, and she says some of the more competitive schools start sending out first-wave acceptance letters at the end of October ... October!" My brother seemed not the slightest bit fazed by my declaration. But I was on a roll and added, "has he even filled out a single application? Or even sent away for any literature?"

"See ... there you go again," my brother bellowed, stepping away from a counter and closing the physical distance between us. "It's not YOUR concern what Adam does or doesn't do!!"

"You can't be serious ... I love that kid! I just want what's ..."

"NONE ... OF ... YOUR ... CONCERN!" While my brother punctuated each word with a poke to my shoulder, my sister closed ranks. In solidarity against me, she moved to stand just behind our older sibling, wearing a pleased little smirk on her sour face. I was out the door and on the road in minutes.

As I merged into freeway traffic, my mind shifted away from my exasperating family and settled on my good friend Terry. He and I had been best friends since the fifth grade. I was his best man at his wedding and am very proud to be godfather to his daughter. One day a few month's ago, I was at Terry's house talking with his wife, Leslie. Terry was at a neighbor's helping with a clogged drain and we were waiting until his return to order some pizza ... Terry's very particular about pizza. Anyway, as we conversed, Terry's son Ricky ... I think he's two ... waddled over and started climbing up my leg. I hoisted the little guy onto my lap where he immediately started fussing with my car keys which I had laid to the side on a table.

"Tell him no," Leslie said with a hint of a challenge.

"It's okay ... he can't hurt them."

She eyed me slyly and said, "Do you really want him messing with them? ... he chews and slobbers on everything."

"Well then, no ... not really."

"Then get his attention and tell him 'no.' Say it kind of loud and if he doesn't listen, smack his hand and tell him again."

I shot Leslie an incredulous look. "I'm not gonna smack your kid."

My statement made Leslie snort out loud. "Aaron, I didn't say break his hand ... I said gently smack his hand so he knows you're serious. He has to learn to mind when he's told to do something."

As non-confrontationally as I could, I explained to Leslie that I wasn't comfortable disciplining her children like that. She took Ricky from my lap and fixed me with an amused smile. "Listen," she playfully lectured, "we consider you part of this family, so it IS your job to help us raise Ricky and Amber to know the difference between right and wrong. We're counting on you." I remember feeling my eyes mist up a little over her heartfelt words.

Back in the present, in my car driving home, I had similar "moisture" threatening to occlude my vision. But these were tears of anger. Could my siblings really not see what I was trying to do? I pondered. How was wanting my niece to have decent manners or helping my nephew make informed decisions about going to college a "bad" thing? Was "being an uncle" just helping out from time to time and showing up at Christmas and birthdays with a nice gift? Whatever the case, I knew it was going to be quite some time before I bothered speaking to my two oldest siblings.

POINT OF RANT: Thank God friends make the best "family!"

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