My five-year-old niece is squishing my face between two tiny hands. Laughing, she presses the skin forward until my face puckers. “The day I met you my world started to rock!” she exclaims. This moment stands out, but there have been many such moments where I realized, like it or not…this child, these nieces or nephews, were sweeping me away, and sometimes quite literally, “kid-napping” me into their lives.
Of course, none of us, at least initially, chose to be an uncle. Instead, someone close to us decides to have a kid, and suddenly through no choice of our own, we’re uncles. The beauty is, if we’re up for embracing it, the moment of being kid-napped quickly, and often-times magically, transforms into our calling, our “place” in a person or a family’s life.
As Steinbeck observed about travel, “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
"Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charlie
Unclehood is much like this, with one significant difference. As uncles, we didn’t orchestrate the journey or speak to any tour masters. We arrived with few – if any – expectations, so there were few frustrations in need of “falling away.” To be an uncle is to be inserted into precisely-tuned expectations, maps, and plans of our sisters, brothers, in-laws, friends, nieces, and nephews.
Thankfully, we’re mostly truly happy hostages, grateful players in a grand scheme not of our own making. We may become “uncles” in the traditional sense for a sibling’s child, or take on the role for a friend’s child. Whatever the case, we don’t call these relationships into existence, they arrive. They call us. And that calling can become our own.
I was called to it when my then-three-year-old nephew - half sleeping, whimpering and deep in the throes of a Christmas eve nightmare - crawled into my sleeping bag in front of the fireplace. He sobbed, then slept again. I carried him back up to his room an hour later so that, in the morning, the legend of Santa Claus would still be intact.
I was called to it as I watched a different niece crowning from her mother’s tearing body and a few days later had that same child sleeping on my chest as I lay on my sister’s living room floor house. I was called to it while exploring the markets in South East Asia and playing hide-and-seek in Paris and Venice with still other nephews and nieces.
Over the years with my nephews and nieces – and their parents – I’ve watched births, changed diapers, chaperoned countless events, witnessed weddings, walked with them through deaths. I’ve done long-term duty while parents traveled and stepped into some gaps moms and dads couldn’t. I’ve shopped for prom dresses, discussed birth control, wiped plenty of tears, and even waded through the tumultuous moments of other people's marriages with their uncertain kids. I’ve seen childhood tantrums turn unabated into teenage entitlement, and then into adulthood with all its sobering realities and hopeful promise. I’ve been there as relationships bloomed, then burned. And sometimes blossomed again.
Obviously, none of these relationships developed overnight. Unclehood called again, and again, and again.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived overseas and traveled a good portion of the world, living and experiencing other cultures. Perhaps because of the way I travel, as the truly happy hostage of another person’s – or culture’s – story, I’ve been called “Uncle” in at least 20 different languages. And while the word “uncle” changes - just as do the cultural norms, traditions and conceptions - from one language country or group to the next, the central essence of what it means is strikingly universal. To be an uncle is be both a bit of an outlier, but to also move beyond simple formality, and into a relationship of authentic trust, extended family, and deepened connection. Astride the worlds of convention and the unconventional, unclehood’s journey can be diverse, humbling and full of surprises.
During a 3-year journey caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s, I even became my own mother's uncle.
One morning I walked into her room and her eyes lit up with joy. “Uncle Charlie, you’re here!” Who the hell was Uncle Charlie? I’ll never know, but apparently he was someone who made her laugh, gave her hope, made her smile. I embraced the opportunity to be whoever my I needed to be at that moment, for the person I loved. Uncle Charlie showed up frequently for about a year, then drifted into the foggy echo that is dementia. Uncle Charlie took her out for ice cream and coffee, read her the newspaper, told her stories, listened to her plans, combed her hair and brushed her teeth and got her ready to face the world.
Of course, being an uncle – particularly being your mother’s uncle – stretches you. Around this time I also began to look more carefully at the role of uncles and men, as caretakers. Most fathers and men I know resonate with the job of being a provider. What we don’t mention or emphasize for men is authentic caretaking, either for our children, our elderly, or our own emotional selves.
For me, being an uncle means that I listen and do everything I can to move someone else’s story forward with and honest heart and full integrity. I’m an uncle not just to my family, but also to the companies I’ve fostered but not founded, and the creative projects my teams have birthed and I’ve shepherded. An uncle can be honest in a way a parent, a founder, an engineer sitting in front of his or her own creation, would rarely dare, or even imagine. But, without a doubt, these creations - human or otherwise - need the voice, direction, and perspective the honesty only an uncle can provide.
So, here we are at Unclenomics.com. Being an uncle is a gift, treasured because it can be fleeting, precious because I did nothing to initially make it happen. My investment isn’t with the outcome, but with the process, with the magical opportunity I have to be, figuratively (and then literally) “kid-napped” into a journey somewhere along the way and to just be part of it in any way I can.
After all, while one never fully gets used to being called unexpectedly, I’ve certainly become accustomed to knowing that I will be. So rewarding has this model been that it’s how I’ve lived, a happy, if sometimes surprised, player in the big game. I’m going to continue to work like an uncle, travel like an uncle, and immerse myself like an uncle. My hope is that through Unclenomics.com I can continue to share that surprising adventure and the perspectives and observations that come with it, both mine and that of others who, find themselves called, and then with a calling of their own, set into the maw of the grand adventure.
Got a great story to tell about being an uncle, or about one of your special uncle or uncle-like characters in your life?