Aspen Princess: Look at us now, Uncle Dan |

Aspen Princess: Look at us now, Uncle Dan

My brother and I were at Wal-Mart, looking to buy Levi some Matchbox cars.

“Woah, check out this Woodie with the surfboard on top,” Dan said, holding up the toy car, encased in thick plastic that’s impossible to open. “I think I’m going to keep this one for myself!”

Dan is about to turn 41, though we both joke he’s going on 14. He’s very excited to relive his childhood passion for cars with my son, and nothing could make me happier.

It turns out Dan is an amazing uncle, more than I could have ever asked for. Not only is he great with the baby, it seems to come naturally to him. For someone who says he has no interest in having children of his own, he’s amazing with babies. There’s no forced tone, no awkwardness, no hesitation. He’ll do anything and everything from reading to him and putting him down for bed to changing his diapers (even if the diaper did end up around the baby’s ankle, he tried). He’s playful and loving and affectionate and Levi adores him, running full speed into his leg and raising his arms up to be held.

This might seem obvious to most people. Like, of course your brother is going to love his nephew. But the truth is, family dynamics are far more complicated than that.

I am 61/2 years older than Daniel, so when he was born it was like he was my baby, too. For many years when all my friends were having babies and I was still a bedraggled single girl who showed up to 1-year-old birthday parties and baptisms so hungover I was slightly foaming at the mouth, that was all I had to go on.

It was, “I remember when my brother used to do that,” and “when my brother was a baby, he was the same way at that age.”

With such a big age spread, we were never in the same school at the same time or shared any of the same friends. We had nothing to fight about. When he was 10, I was 16 and I let him drive my car in the parking lot. When I was 24 and he was 18, I worked for a big snowboarding magazine and took him to the Alps on an assignment and let him participate in a photo-shoot with a crew of pro snowboarders. When I lived in Southern California, I taught him how to surf and watched in utter dismay as he caught a good wave on his first day out and rode it down the line like he’d been doing it all his life.

He was the one who taught me to snowboard. I was 20 and he was 13 when he handed his first old snowboard down to me. It was a Burton Free 5 and he’d inscribed it with a Sharpie pen: “To my best friend and big sister Ali. From your best friend and little brother, Dan.”

My brother and I adored each other growing up. For years, his birthday was my passcode for everything. Until I met Ryan, he was the single most important man in my life.

As adults, though, we had a harder time. I think we cared so much about what the other person thought that we became extremely sensitive to each other’s judgments, whether real or perceived. I think we also sometimes see in each other the things we don’t like about ourselves; the parts of our personalities that are hard wired and impossible to change that make it a little tougher for us to navigate the world. We have the same DNA, and sometimes we don’t like what we see, even if we share the same greenish blue eyes that change depending on the light and the color of our clothes.

We also took very different paths. Dan became a businessman and I was more of an artist. He was determined to make money and become self-sufficient. He always lived on the fringes, choosing extreme climates and remote locales as places to live. He would change course suddenly and without notice, going from one extreme to the next. Like when he decided to move from Alma, where he’d built a house at almost 11,000 feet, to the jungles of Costa Rica, where scorpions and tarantulas and wildfires and volcanos and extreme heat became his new environ. He built a community from scratch in the jungle and then developed a small compound on a steep mountainside with a driveway that’s on a 20 percent grade, so steep it feels as though you might flip over forward.

Meanwhile, I became a self-proclaimed princess, living in Aspen and spending money I didn’t have. As he would say, I was “buying designer dogs and designer cars,” while he scraped by with an old used car and a small backpack for a suitcase, his toiletries in a zip lock bag, dressed in a sweatshirt he’d bought at a gift shop on the way to the airport with sunglasses from 7-Eleven.

We don’t always approve of each other’s choices, though I think we’ve learned to keep our opinions to ourselves, if for no other reason than that we finally recognized our ability to deeply hurt each other, and neither of us wants that.

To see Daniel with my son, to see the purity of that love, is part of why I had this child in the first place. With everything we had to go through, with the price we had to pay, I remember at one point thinking that this baby wasn’t just for me but would bring joy to all of us. That’s what carried me through.

I often wonder what my purpose was before Levi. I may not know the answer, but one thing I do know is family is what it’s all about.

The Princess is trying to figure out a mom appropriate costume for Halloween. Email your ideas to

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