Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Lessons from My Childhood Nanny

Dedicated to my childhood nanny, Paulina

I decided to write a series of Lessons essays for the people who are closest to me and who are still here. After all, they’ve taught me the most important lessons I’ve learned. This is the third essay of that series. The first essay is on what my Galician grandfather has taught me about personal finance and the second is on what my literary grandmother has taught me about writing.

My childhood nanny, Paulina, is one of my favorite people ever. Those who did not grow up in Latin America as I did might not know just how important one’s nanny can be.

I hope the following lessons can help illustrate it.

Because when your school bus drops you off at home, and your mom is at work, and your maternal grandparents who live in the same house aren’t home or are busy, and you’re an only child, and your dog is devoid of any personality (sorry, Tiger; rest in peace) … guess who is home and available. That’s right: Paulina.

So, as far as I’m concerned, she is family.

Here are four lessons I learned from my childhood nanny, Paulina:

Lesson 1: Lying isn’t always bad.
Lesson 2: Assert your self.
Lesson 3: Novelty is overrated.
Lesson 4: Nurture the loves of people you love.

Lesson 1: Lying isn’t always bad.

When I was a kid, my biological father was, well, how to put it? “A little bit aggressive.” I think that’s a fair, diplomatic description.

Frankly, I deserve a diplomacy award for that.

Anyhow, for mysterious reasons, my biological father hated when I had café con leche, also known as coffee with milk. He hated it. I truly still don’t know why; he never gave any reason, which, in hindsight … is kind of funny. It’s like if I were to lose my temper and want to break stuff whenever my biological father eats a cookie.

One afternoon, I was enjoying a perfect cup of Panamanian café con leche that had been prepared by Paulina.¹ From my room, where she and I were hanging out, we heard the rumble of my biological father’s pickup truck followed by the metallic sound of the main door opening. Let’s put it this way: In those moments, “joy” was not the most present emotion.

Diplomacy award?

Paulina promptly took the half-full cup of café con leche from me and gave me a mint from the pack she always had on her.

My biological father entered the room as his best self, all smiles and charm. He mentioned he had to leave again and was just stopping by to say hi.

Then, he noticed the cup of café con leche in Paulina’s hand. His expression morphed. I felt doomed.

He asked Paulina, in Spanish: “He hasn’t been drinking any, has he?”

She replied, also in Spanish, as it would’ve been weird if she’d spoken in a language foreign to her: “No, no, ha, of course not. I’m drinking it! It’s been a long day. He just had lunch, and we were just talking.”

My biological father looked at her like an interrogator trying to figure out whether he was being lied to.

Thankfully … he was fooled.

He hugged me goodbye as my minty breath further fooled him, and he left.

First: I know professional actors who would not be able to match Paulina’s performance. It’s hard to transmit via the written word, but think of Al Pacino in the last scene of The Godfather, except female and significantly more Latin American.

Second, and most important: That was a good lie. As in, it was ethically good.

Any religion or moral code that claims lying is always bad is a religion or moral code that is unaware of the real world.

What would’ve happened had Paulina been honest? I would’ve been yelled at and insulted, or worse … but at least she would’ve been honest, and [insert deity or moral leader here] would have approved of her honesty! This is, of course, ridiculous.

I’m not implying it’s okay to lie any time the truth might have a negative consequence. Most times, the truth is the right path, regardless of how painful it might be. Sometimes, however, to tell the truth is to be naïve and inconsiderate, or even unethical.

Lying isn’t always bad. If done to protect someone, for example, it can actually be good.

Gracias, Mima.

Al Pacino channeling Paulina for the ominous final scene of The Godfather.

Lesson 2: Assert your self.

One early morning, when I was 12 years old, I awoke to screams.

At the time, I was living with my mom in the lower level of a two-level house, and the screams were coming from the upper level, where my grandparents and Paulina lived.

Oh, and someone else had recently moved into the upper level: María Elena [cue thunder and spooky church organ].

María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ] was a polite Colombian lady who had moved into my grandparents' home to temporarily help with chores, but she managed to stay on as “second nanny” despite her complete lack of nanny skills.

She was not a good nanny, but she was something my grandma adored: Deeply, dogmatically, fanatically religious. So, she got the job. Who said the nanny world was a meritocracy?

Back to the screams: It was Paulina versus María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ]. The screams were unintelligible but so loud that I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again. So, I exited the lower level of the house and stepped onto the backyard to try to understand why I was awoken from yet another wonderful dream involving Shania Twain (it was a purely romantic dream, and I stand by it; Shania was my first and only celebrity crush).

From the backyard, I could finally understand the screams. This remains one of the most intrinsically comedic situations I have ever witnessed: Paulina was insulting María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ], while María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ] was trying to exorcise … yes … exorcise Paulina.

What follows is a PG-13 summary of what I heard. Each line is written in its original Spanish and is followed by its English translation. For a more realistic experience, simply add to Paulina’s lines as many curse words as you can:

Paulina: ¡Vieja loca, bruja, cállate la boca, cocobola, lárgate de aquí!

(Crazy old woman, witch, shut your mouth, bald-headed woman, get out of here!)

María Elena: ¡Sal, demonio; sal, sal y libera el alma perdida de esta mujer!

(Begone, demon; begone, begone, and free the lost soul of this woman!)

Paulina: ¡Sal tú misma, idiota; piérdete, diabla loca!

(You begone yourself, idiot; get lost, crazy female devil!)

What a life this is. Good times.

I later learned what had triggered this situation. Since María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ] was better at playing the politics game and manipulating my grandma via Bible verses, she was subtly trying to oust Paulina from the house.

Paulina would have none of it.

Hence, the screams and the exorcism.

The best part of it all? After this incident, María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ] never again messed with Paulina.

The lesson here is not necessarily that you should scream at people who try to exorcise you.

The lesson is that you should assert your self.

You are not doing anyone any favors if you enable disrespectful behavior. In fact, you are teaching your self how to be disrespected, and you are teaching other people that it’s okay to disrespect you and others, when it clearly isn’t.

Instead, you can calmly communicate and enforce your boundaries. You can rant in your journal, and then prepare to act in a more strategic manner. You might choose to distance your self from someone. You might internally assert that the most intelligent thing to do per your self’s long-term goals is to do nothing in the short term. You might have to use immediate physical force.

Whatever you choose to do or not do, you have to assert your self. Teach your self how to be respected, and teach others that being disrespectful is not okay.

Assert your self.

Gracias, Mima.

Sorry, María Elena … [thunder and spooky church organ].

J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” is what I hear when I think of a spooky church organ. I encourage you to reread Lesson 2 with this in mind.

Lesson 3: Novelty is overrated.

Up until I graduated from secondary school in 2012,² each weekday, I would come home from school to Paulina and her classic pollo guisado con arroz, frijoles y tajadas, my favorite of her dishes.

By “my favorite of her dishes” I mean “her only dish.”

I think Paulina knew how to cook a total of three dishes, and those other two were usually for my grandpa, so 99% of the times I ate a Paulina dish, I ate the exact same one.

Yet … I never got bored with eating the same dish, over and over again, through weeks, months, years.

Why? Simple: I loved that dish. It was so good.

Paulina’s extremely limited cooking repertoire can teach us a lesson: Novelty is overrated! Her classic dish was tasty and healthy. Why would I need to try anything else?

I’ve applied this lesson to other realms of life:

  • In my artistic life, I am often tempted to begin a new project instead of continuing to discover one I’ve already begun. There is nothing wrong with trying new things, especially in the arts, but I’ve learned that whenever I feel a compulsion for novelty in this realm, it usually means I’m either afraid of facing what I’m already working on or have forgotten to enjoy what I’m doing. The solution, then, is often to go deeper into what I’m already doing … and to remember to have fun!
  • I’m a one-woman man and have always been at heart. I’m a romantic. If we ever watch the film Midnight in Paris together, prepare to see me weep.³ However, due to adverse childhood experiences, I became convinced and for years believed and embodied that being a one-woman man, i.e., myself, would’ve made me a not-real man, which would’ve made my biological father be ashamed of me, which would’ve made me unworthy of being alive. Ah, yes, the wonders of manhood! Fortunately, thanks to distance from my biological father, therapy, and more, I was able to let go of this inauthentic cognitive-behavioral pattern years ago, and I don’t feel like I miss out on anything by choosing to only be in meaningful, committed relationships.
  • I had the opportunity to attend graduate school, and, as part of my graduate program, I had to find and complete three internships. I did all three with the same company, Sony Music Entertainment, where I work full-time as of this writing. Some career advisors said I was making a mistake. They said I should experiment and take risks instead of “settling” for one company. Their intentions were good, but they were missing the point: If I’m happy at work and love the company and people I’m working with, why would I leave, just to see what’s out there? That makes no sense to me.

In most realms of life, “new” isn’t necessarily better than “good.”

Novelty is overrated.

Gracias, Mima.

Have I mentioned Shania Twain? Honestly, can you blame me for having had a crush on her? Such a stunning, gifted woman. Here’s another video of her performing “You’re Still The One”. Of course, I later learned that it’s not a good idea to have a crush on someone you don’t know based on limited positive impressions,⁴ but hey, I was 12! So: Thank you, Shania. Also, her bass player is the most relaxed human being I have ever seen.

Lesson 4: Nurture the loves of people you love.

Growing up in Panama City, Republic of Panama, my favorite TV show was Disney’s Art Attack.

Art Attack was an interactive TV show where Mexican host and one of my childhood heroes, Rui Torres, would teach, step-by-step, how to make arts and crafts.⁵

I loved Art Attack and would work on its projects all through the day and into the night with the help of my co-creator: Paulina.

This woman was not getting paid to help a kid make arts and crafts off a TV show. She could have easily chosen to take a nap instead of helping me paint a walrus (true story). Yet, she didn’t. She chose to go out of her way to nurture this love of mine, in part because I think she could see how much it meant to me.

After one particular episode of Art Attack, my sole purpose in life became to create a dinosaur fossil like the one I had just seen Rui Torres create. To achieve this, I needed cardboard, a pencil, scissors, tape, water, glue, and … sand.

Where was I to find large quantities of sand in the outskirts of Panama City, far from either ocean? I don’t know … and I still don’t know. All I know is that Paulina, having learned of my quest, showed up one afternoon with a bag of sand.

Like a mafia boss, I asked no questions.

She then helped me create the fossil. We cut out the fossil shapes I had drawn onto cardboard, taped them together as needed, glued them onto a large and uncut piece of cardboard, covered the surface of the emerging fossil with watered-down glue, and, gloriously, dropped the sand on the sticky surface. We carried the sand-filled fossil to the backyard, shook it, the extra sand fell away, and voilà: Art!

Behold! Art Attack Fossil Project by Me & Paulina, circa the early 2000s.

I have certainly made mistakes as a family member, friend, student, boyfriend, collaborator, colleague, and, well, as a human being. There is, however, at least one thing I’m sure I have always done right: I have always nurtured the loves of people I’ve loved.

If someone I care about is passionate about something, I will go out of my way to buy them a class, a book, tickets, or whatever I feel will most nurture their love, while wholly supporting and helping them in any way I can.

I’d like to think I do this because I’m super special and blessed by the heavens. The truth is I do this because, early in life, I learned how to. I learned from my mom, from my maternal grandparents, and, of course: I learned from Paulina.

So, nurture the loves of people you love. You have no concept of how much it might mean to them.

Gracias, Mima.

To review, here are four lessons I learned from my childhood nanny, Paulina:

Lesson 1: Lying isn’t always bad.
Lesson 2: Assert your self.
Lesson 3: Novelty is overrated.
Lesson 4: Nurture the loves of people you love.

As of this writing, Paulina is, thankfully, still alive. Though we live in separate countries, we often speak on the phone. She has been struggling with health issues for the past few years, and, since she sometimes can’t afford to have a doctor check on her, my mom and I do our best to help her.

You see, Paulina comes from an extremely humble background in Panama. In Panamanian society and most other societies, including the United States, she might be described as “lower-class.”

I take issue with this terminology because it implicitly equates social or economic “status” with “class.”

For example, Paulina was always good to me, and my biological father was often abusive towards me.⁶ In fact, she often protected me from him. Yet, since my biological father has a pretty surname and always knew how to wear a suit, he was bizarrely perceived as a respectable, “upper-class” member of society, whereas Paulina, who is a beautiful human being, was always perceived as “lower-class.” Cool, right?⁷

I am not claiming that everyone who is perceived as “lower-class” is classy and everyone who is perceived as “upper-class” is not; such a claim would be as extreme and untrue as its opposite.

I do assert this: Paulina is pure class.

She is living proof that true class has nothing to do with status, appearance, prestige, money, rhetoric, or formal education. It has to do with being the best human being one can be, moment to moment; making inevitable mistakes but owning and learning from them, and doing as much good as one can, with love, compassion for oneself and others, and the best possible intentions.

I will continue to help Paulina in any way I can, though I have no idea how I could ever repay all she has done for me.

Perhaps I can start by translating this essay into Spanish and finding a way to have her read or listen to it, so at least she’s aware of how much she means to me.

Gracias, Mima.

Paulina and I at her home in the outskirts of Panama City, Republic of Panama, circa 2020. Note the height difference. Note also that I’m subtly trying to make myself shorter. This is because being taller than Paulina still feels bizarre to me: I actually remember her bathing me in a tub when I was still a baby. From my baby perspective, she was a giant. Lastly, if you look through the purple shirt and into Paulina’s soul, you will notice she has been partially exorcised.⁸

Notes

  1. I no longer drink coffee (anxiety don’t need no help!), but if I did, I wouldn’t drink it from any of the popular coffee chains in the United States, where I live as of this writing. Why? Panamanian coffee in general and Paulina’s coffee in particular is just too good. When it comes to coffee, I was spoiled.
  2. Special thanks to the school I attended for pre-kinder, kinder, primary school, and secondary school: Colegio Episcopal de Panamá, where I learned so much and so little, both in the best way.
  3. Midnight in Paris is a perfect film (and script). It is at once funny and beautiful. The ending gets me every time.
  4. For more on this, research “the halo effect” and stop making important personal and professional decisions based on limited positive impressions, e.g., charm, beauty, a particular skill, attractiveness, prestige, a single personality trait, reputation, etc. I have made these mistakes so that you don’t have to!
  5. I don’t mean to play the grumpy old man, but what happened to positive screen-based entertainment for children? I’m grateful to have been a kid in the 1990s and 2000s, right before the internet and media got out of control.
  6. I have made these factual references to my biological father and my relationship with him because they’re important to this essay and to why I’m so grateful for Paulina, not because I want to trash him. By the way, his childhood was arguably worse than mine. Also: Why do so many people make so many mistakes so often? Are they all born dumb, crazy, or evil? Do they develop in a vacuum? All of them? Really? Does a society share no responsibility in the sins of so many of its members? How many Fast & Furious movies can they possibly make? These are the important questions.
  7. Way too much of our societal value system is derived from the questionable “science” of economics, but that’s a fun topic for another time!
  8. … María Elena [thunder and spooky church organ].

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Manny Vallarino

Manny Vallarino

Site — mannyvallarino.net | Private Email List — mannyvallarino.net/list/

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