The holidays were different for me this year. It was the first holiday season sans both parents. I felt a bit like an orphan.
It was my mother's wish that we spread their ashes on St. Simon's Island, where they spent their most enjoyable years. My sister and I rented a big beach house, and she came down with her family and I went up solo, as I'm not married and don't have any kids. We did the deal on Christmas day, and it was a special time, and I kind of felt like it was my mom pulling us together as a family. It was a very smooth thing, nothing at all like Lonesome Dove, when Tommy Lee Jones had to carry Robert Duvall's body back to Texas and it like to killed him. No, this was an enjoyable task and gave us a great opportunity to celebrate their lives and include them in our Christmas.
I'm getting to the life lessons now, I had to set the scene first.
My sister has two daughters from her first marriage and my brother-in-law has a daughter and son from his first marriage. They have no children together. So, I have three nieces and one nephew, and I love them all.
The girls are pretty easy to get along with, but the nephew is 14, about to be 15, and he's pretty full of himself. He wants to be like his daddy so bad, it just can't happen fast enough. That's not a bad thing, his daddy is a good man, but the boy ain't there yet. In the last year he's grown about 6 inches, and now he's 6' and several inches taller than me. He's going to be a big dude, he's not done growing by a long shot. But regardless of how big he gets, I still have to keep him in line. As the Cool Uncle, it's my job.
So during the holidays we were all hanging out in the beach house. The kitchen and the family room were basically one large room, with one wall nothing but floor to ceiling glass, looking out at the ocean. Very cool.
I start joking around with my sister's oldest daugther, Hayley, about one of her friends. Now, I'm twenty years older than Hayley and her buddies, but they're in their early twenties and full grown. I mention to her that maybe her friend Sarah is in the market for a sugar daddy, and I'd be happy to volunteer for the job. I said, tell her I almost meet the age requirement, and as far as the money, I'm still working on it. But we can go ahead and get a head start, if she wants.
Everybody laughed and my sister got a little tweaked. She looked at me like I'm a pervert, and said I'm not old enough to be a sugar daddy and don't have the money anyway, and I said hell yeah I am and don't sweat the dough, we'll manage. Joe, my bro-in-law, jumps in on my side, and the banter went on for a couple of minutes and it was over with a few laughs.
Later that night after dinner my nephew made some comment, I don't remember exactly, and I said something back and then he said, "Come on, old man."
"Who you calling old man, punk?" I said.
"I'm calling you old man. You said so yourself," he said, smirking a little.
Whoa. My sister looked at me, sort of grinning. Joe was looking at the TV, I don't know if he heard or not, but he was smiling about something.
I looked at the boy and shook my head. "Jared," I said, "walk with me."
I put my arm around his shoulders - I had to reach up a little - and led him out to the deck.
He tensed up, like he knew something was coming but not sure what.
"Jared, that was a dick move, just now. You know it in your heart, but you don't know why, exactly. I'm going to tell you why. I'm going to do you a favor and drop a little adult wisdom on your verdant punk ass."
We were leaning on the railing, the light from inside falling on the dunes and the beach beyond. We couldn't see the waves but we could hear the persistent dull crashing. I looked at the boy, who looked a little confused.
"Jared, you want to be liked by people, right?" It was a rhetorical question and I didn't wait for an answer. "Of course you do, it's natural. One way to be liked by people is to not be a dick.
"Now, earlier, I kind of made myself the butt of my own joke. That's called self-deprecating humor, and most people find it to be an endearing quality. People generally like other people who don't take themselves too seriously, and don't mind providing laughter at their own expense once in a while. It's a humble gesture, and people generally appreciate humility in others.
"Now, by taking my own humility and turning it against me, you've violated an unspoken law. Only a dick or an asshole does it, see?" I squeezed his shoulder for emphasis, and he grimaced a little, as I squeezed it kind of hard, right up there at the base of the neck.
"Not only that, you were just a witness to the joke, not a participant. That joke was between me and Hayley and Robin and Joe, so that's a second violation, compounding the seriousness of the initial dick move. You still with me?"
He nodded, looking into the darkness, kind of forlorn.
"So, ultimately, if you want to be a smartass, and by the way, don't believe the people who say no one likes a smartass, cause plenty of people love a good a smartass, but if you're going to be a smartass, you have to learn the etiquette, and I've just given you your first lesson. If you don't want people to think you're a dick, don't act like one. You dig?"
He nodded again. "Thanks, Uncle John, you're the coolest. I'll try not to be a dick anymore."
"You're learning, boy. I think you've got a chance."