Just after we arrived at my sister’s house in New Jersey for Memorial Day weekend, Drew pointed out to me that this was our first visit with her family since she’d named us in her will as the guardians of her two daughters, ages 3 1/2 and 2, in the event of Something That Will Never Happen happening. Drew asked me if I was nervous, and if I’d be wondering all weekend if she was keeping a close eye on how I got along with the kids so she’d know if she made the right choice.

Well, uh, now that you mention it, Drew… yes!

My younger niece still has a very limited vocabulary, and the words she does know are sometimes hard to understand. “Nah” means “yes”. She still can’t pronounce “Jerry”, but instead of making up some cute alternative, she just avoids saying my name altogether. Here’s how she lists off everyone at dinner… “Mommy! Daddy! Grandma! Drew!… vague gesture in my direction” After about the millionth time someone pointed at me and asked her “Who’s that?”, only to receive a blank stare in return, I begged them to stop.

* * *

The worst thing I did on the whole trip was to teach these two young, impressionable girls a four-letter word:


It started off innocently enough. I’d bop one of them on the head gently with a pillow and shout, “Boop!” It was a fun game, and like most games with kids that age, you can play it five thousand times in a row, and they’ll laugh just as hard every time. Soon, they were running around doing it to everyone they saw, then exploding with laughter afterward. A bonk on the nose with an Elmo doll… “Boop!” A thrust of the 80% deflated Dora the Explorer balloon from the birthday party two weeks ago… “Boop!”

Naturally, the booping eventually got out of hand. Boops were often followed by tears, and more than once, the word “boop” was used in anger. By the time I left, the word “boop” was attached to all sorts of physical abuse and I apologized profusely to my sister for ever starting the whole mess.

Another word my nieces know is “beep”, which means “fart”, and which is something they do a lot. I can’t blame them. If we had such cute names for all bodily functions, maybe there wouldn’t be any shame attached to them at all. My sister and her husband used to call beeps “air poopies”, which is even cuter… and thus even more dangerous. Sometimes my nieces will beep and then announce it proudly. First, there’s the loud sound the beep itself makes, then the announcement, “I beeped!”, and then gleeful tittering. And it’s not that they’re gassy kids. They’re just so uninhibited about beeps that even a mild burst of excitement can bring them on, such as my brother-in-law tossing them up in the air and catching them, or telling them we’re going to the movies.

* * *

The movie we saw was “Madagascar”. I’m not sure if my nieces are just too young to be able to sit through a movie that long, or if no one of any age was meant to sit through that film. About half an hour into the movie, my older niece turned to her mom and said, “Mommy, I think it’s over. Can we go now?” Alas, the characters had only just then reached the titular land, so the rest of us knew it was far, far from over. A few minutes later, my niece was chatting again, wondering if she could go in the kiddie pool when she got home. I asked her afterward if she liked the movie. “Yes,” was all she said. That translates into two big thumbs down by three-year-old standards.

There are a couple of amusing moments in the movie, but as Drew pointed out, it’s a little weird to watch a kid’s movie where the main tension is, “Will the hero eat his best friend?” It’s nice to see David Schwimmer land a movie role, but not so nice when he’s typecast as the neurotic Jewish-surnamed hypochondriac stereotype giraffe. David, I’m sure the VO sessions were quick, but couldn’t you just have stayed home and snacked on a hundred-dollar-bill sandwich instead?

A word of advice: If you’re going to see this film, don’t see it in New Jersey. One of the celeb-voiced CGI animals makes a mean-spirited anti-Jersey crack that had the whole theater full of tots in an uproar when I saw it.

* * *

Despite everything my sister and her husband have done to persuade her otherwise, my older niece’s favorite book is “The English Roses” by Madonna. They’ve tried to persuade her otherwise not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s a long book, and she wants them to read it to her every night before she goes to bed. On the night I put her to bed, I realized how many times she’s heard the book, because despite its length and relative difficulty, she practically had it memorized.

“Do you know who Madonna is?” I asked her.


“She’s a very famous writer,” I told her. “And she’s British.”

I had never read “The English Roses” before, but I was surprised at how not-terrible it was — and how seemingly autobiographical. It’s about a group of stuck-up cliquey girls (none of whom represent Madonna) and the girl they know whom they exclude from their adventures because she’s so beautiful that they’re insanely jealous of her (Madonna). The mean girls end up learning that this gorgeous young lass is actually — Spoiler Alert — quite unhappy because her mom died and now she has lots of chores to do at home as a result. So then they stop being assholes.

The book is set in Madonna’s adopted homeland of England, which you can tell because the girls drink tea and because one girl wears a Union Jack dress and another calls her mother “Mum”. When I tried to read “Mum”‘s dialogue to my niece with a British accent, she told me to “stop doing the silly voice”. (Madonna, please take heed.) The book ultimately had its intended effect: it put her to sleep.

* * *

My older niece’s current favorite playtime activity is to put on “shows”. A “show” consists of her standing in the front of the room and announcing, in a bold circus ringmaster tone of voice, “Ladies and Gentleman… I love to sing!” She then sings a song she composed herself, which goes roughly like this:

“I love to sing!/
I love to sing!/
I love to sing!/
I love to sing!

I love to sing!/
I love to sing!/
I love to sing!/
I love to sing!”

The shows draw quite a crowd. Not only are all the people in the house expected to attend, but so are all the dolls. And everyone gets a turn to take the stage, sometimes alone and sometimes, by her special request, in a duet with her. On occasion, the performance invitation is extended to dolls as well, and she props the doll up against the TV and makes everyone stare at it in silence until she determines the doll has finished its performance.

A few days before we arrived, my sister took the kid to Barnes & Noble, and when she saw a real stage set up in the children’s section, she stood up and performed her show live for an audience of passers-by. We happened to go to that same Barnes & Noble while I was in town, but it was more crowded that night, and she had stage fright.

* * *

Like all little girls, my niece has lots of dolls, mostly in the bald, expressionless dirty pajama genre of dolls that only very young kids fail to realize are insanely creepy. Each of her hundreds of dolls has a name, and 90% of the capacity of her developing intellect has been allocated to remembering these names and keeping the dolls straight. If you ask her what her dolls names are, she will gladly introduce them to you.

“That’s Pablo… and Tyrone… and Tasha… and Teniequa…”

Nobody is sure where she gets the names for her dolls. They’re not the names of any of the kids in her preschool class or of any of the characters on the TV shows she watches.

Pictured (l-r): Pablo, Tyrone, Tasha, Teniequa

* * *

My sister and her husband have a strict “no name calling” policy in their house, which was harder on me and Drew than on the kids, I think. It took a whole lot of adjustment. I’m not used to dealing with kids without being able to call them “goofball” and “poopyhead”. Nor am I used to dealing with Drew without using those words. If Something That Will Never Happen ever happened, that’s one rule that would go right out the window — along with that whole going to church thing.

* * *

While we were in town, we also happened to hang out with my six-year-old step-nephew, who repeatedly bragged that he was in the gifted and talented program at school. He’s exactly the kind of kid I want and deserve to have some day, insufferably precocious to others, but adorably nerdy to me.

My sister and her husband told me as we were on our way to meet his family at the beach that they weren’t so sure he was the golden boy he made himself out to be. They suspected him of smuggling a toy microphone out of my sister’s house during a party there two weeks ago. When we met up with him, my brother-in-law pointedly asked him if he knew where the microphone had gone. “I have trouble remembering things,” he said, and then he quickly ran off. The next day, his mom called to say she’d found it in his room.

On seeing my iPod, he told me he had one, too, and I made a mental note to keep a close eye on it whenever Sticky Fingers was around. He told me he had a ton of songs on his.

“How many?” I asked.

“Thirty-two!” he said.

I asked him what his favorite song was, and he said it was “A World Without Danger”.

“I don’t know that song. Who sings it?”

“It’s not a who! It’s a theme song!”

“A theme to what?”

“To my favorite TV show, ‘Code Lyoko‘!”

“Oh.” I was only familiar with this show because he’d spent about half an hour explaining it to me the last time I’d seen him. It’s on the Cartoon Network, it’s in that tacky faux-anime style that doesn’t bother kids who don’t know any better, and it has something to do with computers. Suffice it to say it’s a show made for the kind of kid who likes to go around bragging that he’s in the gifted and talented program.

A minute later, he came back over because he had something he wanted to add: “My other favorite song is ‘One-Two Step’ by Ciara Featuring Missy Elliot.” And as he ran off again, he yelled, “It’s on her album ‘Goodies’!”

Man, I love kids.

As for whether this weekend was a big test or not, I’m still not sure. My sister never mentioned anything, which probably means that she’s perfectly comfortable with her decision.

Or that she still has her eye on me.

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