July 8, 2013 | by Mike Scalise
My average encounter with my eighteen-month-old nephew, Crosby, goes like this: First, I press a button. The boy, who lives in Charlotte, appears on a piece of handheld video technology, wobbling like a sleepy bear cub, eating something that’s not food (a TV remote; a shoe, maybe). Several states away, my wife and I speak into our technology. We say “Crosby-face! There’s Crosby-face!” Then my brother-in-law’s unseen voice commands his son, like God or a drive-thru employee, to “give your aunt and uncle a kiss.” Crosby lunges at his screen, at us, toothless, dripping with joy. Like it’s a part of a script, I yell “Crosby’s trying to eat my face!” then my wife yells “Who’s trying to eat somebody’s face?” and right on cue our screen goes pink with a toddler’s wet gums. It goes on like this for minutes, my wife and I encouraging our poor nephew—this pure, adorable maniac—to actually ingest a touchscreen device. “Oh no! Crosby’s eating us!” we say to no one. “He’s eating our noses! What will we do?!?” we say, until Crosby, cackling wildly, knocks the device from his father’s hands, and like the ill-fated hunters of the Blair Witch ghost, our transmission falls black at once.
Until seconds later, when we repeat the whole encounter again.
This interaction, or some version of it, has happened at least three times a week for the last year and a half in my home. As an uncle, I don’t know if I can take much more. But it’s not because I don’t love my nephew (Crosby says “hungry” both with words and in sign language; his blue eyes go big when you toss him airborne), or because I’m or some fist-shaking curmudgeon, longing for the days when we were linked to one another by strings and soup cans. In my non-uncle life I’m a nonstop texter and G-chatter. I’m as incessant on the social channels as any other needy soul in that shallow ether. My aversion to v-chatting with Crosby has less to do with the means than it does with the meaning. Crosby’s my first bona fide nephew, my first shot at the job of human uncle, and the thrice-a-week check-ins, the iPad cuddly-cuddly, our faces held apart by a pane of glass—like prison inmates’ to their visiting loved ones’—it’s all cramping my uncle-ing style.
Or, I should say, what I thought that style might be. I’ve never had a desire to be a father (nor my wife a mother), but I’ve always coveted the idea of unclehood. Unlike the high executive role of parent, to be an uncle is to exist in a family on an ill-defined, lawless plane. You’re bonded to a niece or nephew, but with almost zero obligation to contribute anything productive to that bond. As a result, an uncle (especially a childless one) can be to a kid a kind of approachable chaos: part Falstaff, part Biden, someone who interlopes from a foreign, adult land with noogies and shitty gifts to either give a kid a glimpse into a realm beyond their daily rules (“here, have a sip of this beer”), or to provide a sly reminder of why those rules exist in the first place (“here, have a sip of this beer”). My own uncles had names like Perk, Bo, Whitey, and Spin, each of them their own benign, loveable mess, always armed with some lesson or trick that my own parents, in their roles, couldn’t seem to pull off: nose-steals, coins appearing from my ear, pull-my-finger, and so on.
But it’s a porousness that often falls more sadly on uncles than it does on the rest of the Extended Family Day Players. Grandparents, for instance, have their majestic infallibility, cousins the close-knit intimacy of near siblings. Then there’s the unconquerable Cool Aunt, who somehow just gets a child’s humor, style, and sensibility. The uncle’s most stubborn archetype? The Drunk Uncle, a soul so downtrodden and ingrained in Americana that he’s now a recurring character on Saturday Night Live. Played with hilarious precision by Bobby Moynihan, Drunk Uncle doesn’t show up on Weekend Update often, just around the holidays. But when he does—sporting a Members Only jacket, gripping a glass of watered-down Crown, slurring on about how kids today vote for elections using Groupons—he’s a harbinger of the awkward, true-life encounter to come for all of us. Yet what makes Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle so brilliant isn’t just the inappropriateness or the one-liners (though they certainly help). It’s his ability to tap into something inherently lost within the poor guy. Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle, like so many real life uncles, is a man without a time, a symphony of confused identity, raging against his displacement from both parental and youth culture, a failed way station between the two.
My own drunk uncle, a slick LA-type, was married to my cool aunt (for a while, anyway). He inhaled whiskey, collected wind-up toys, and convinced me at age five that the best way to get rid of my loose front tooth was to let him punch the thing out of my mouth. I’m not saying I want to be that kind of uncle to Crosby. Not even close. What I’m saying is that the netherland of the uncle can yield useful things, such as a kid’s first real opportunity to flat-out dislike a grown-up. Unlike with parents or teachers, there’s no confusing authority-resentment when it comes to uncles. They’re such sideline players in a child’s family that they can be early models for what it’s like to live civilly among people for whom you have, at best, limited affection for (see: classmates, eventual coworkers). This doesn’t apply to all uncles, of course. I’ve found in my adult years that a majority of mine are surprising, fascinating guys. But at even five years old, I was shocked at how unconflicted I felt as I watched my bloody front tooth hit my drunk uncle’s linoleum, thinking something not unlike Wow, this guy: grade-A dickface. Yet even if I didn’t realize it then, he proved himself in that moment a helpful primer; a durable example of the type of person I later knew to steer clear of.
But the key to this kind of clarity and remove in a child, and what I suspect makes me so reluctant to keep up with Crosby every third day, is the magical element of distance. And while one might think that speaking through circuitry serves only to highlight exactly how far we are from one another, what I’m talking about here is the threat of the ever-present. There’s a reason it can take years (or sometimes lifetimes) to extract even the simplest meaning from our entanglements with parents and siblings. We’ve been smothered by their presence through whole eras, kept so close to them from such a young age that we can spend much of our adulthoods a-waiting for just a shred of clear perspective on those relationships—and by extension, ourselves—to emerge.
That’s monumentally hard work, and Crosby, with his big blue eyes and his wet gums, is about to enter the slow process of discovering that for himself. Every time his ringtone chimes on my handheld device I see into the future, to years on end of these virtual check-ins, where I learn every morsel of this child’s life through the window of an iPad or whatever comes after. Gone is my loutish privilege as an uncle to play the color commentator to the passage of time, to spark in Crosby the embarrassment of an “I remember when” moment from his bald, postfetal days, or the indignant shock of hearing me say, when he’s fifteen, “What are you, like, twelve now?” At this rate I fear I’ll end up knowing everything about the kid, then by virtue of exposure forge earnest investments in what I’ve learned, and soon enough I’ll be on Crosby’s list of “Relatives to Whom I’m Way Too Close to Decipher.” Which is why I’m tempted to stay a one-dimensional character in Crosby’s life, a gimme, someone he’ll know exactly what to expect from at all times. I want to give him the freedom to feel about me however he chooses, and to do that, I wonder if I’ll need to back away from the Web cam if only to make myself as disconnected as an uncle might have to be.
When I was young my favorite part of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock was when Gobo, the show’s central Muppet, received postcards from his uncle Traveling Matt, who explored the world and wrote meandering tales of it. A new postcard came at the end of every show, and when I watched Gobo read them, I often imagined my own uncles exploring their worlds, doing things so vastly different than the two loving, exhausted specimens of adulthood who doted on me every day in my own home. That intriguing absence, that distance, allowed me to eventually see myself doing things vastly different from my parents, too. It allowed me to become, like my uncles, my own flawed version of a man. Maybe, even with all the face time, I’ll still be that distant template for Crosby. But I can’t help but think there’s a reason we’re told to say uncle when we’re caught in the grips of something. It’s the universal password for letting go.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, Ninth Letter, Post Road, Press Play, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Yaddo and Bread Loaf, and was the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University. You can follow him on Twitter here.