Surprising Carmen

The opera Carmen should not interest the decent spectators
who come to the Opera-Comique with their wives and daughters.
-- Early Critic of Bizet's Carmen

Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry’s Opera Corner.

These days, more and more young people, when faced with the painful disappointments and desires of romance, are turning to the opera. There they find clearer and more believable answers than anything they’ve heard from their parents or their video games. Understandable. Your Uncle Jerry loves the opera, too, but one must keep a critical distance on these matters. A tenor in love is not necessarily your best role model. Especially in Carmen, the world’s most popular opera.

Let’s have a look at Don José. In case you missed this, Camper, José’s backstory includes killing a man who stole his woman. True, true, there is an upside to crimes of passion. Women love a man with passion, a man with a past. On the other hand, passion started José’s trouble before, and it will soon get him in trouble with Carmen—and I don’t mean the good kind. What José is missing is poetry.

I know, I know. Poetry alone is a check with insufficient funds; poetry without passion is a kiss without a moustache. But listen, passion alone is a roller-coaster of anguish at the Hotel California Amusement Park. Don’t take that ride, Camper. Why? Brush up on your 1970s pop music.

Look, pal. Within the heart of the woman you love, there is a Carmen; coquettish and demanding and jealous and, most of all, independent. There are two things that will totally drive her away. One is an obsession to control her. The other is letting her control you. Both of these are the natural offspring of passion, and José has both in spades.

A woman likes to be surprised by her man. Surprise is poetry to her, even when it comes from a doof like you. And no, by surprise, we are not talking about showing up with flowers in your red leather thong. Surprise means she can’t quite predict you; being unpredictable is a form of resistance. And there, my friend, is the irony of love in life and opera. Lovers find resistance fascinating. Why? Because love needs a little friction to keep it warm.

What makes Carmen go cold is a man who can’t stop adoring her for one minute, who gives up everything, jumps at her command. Loses himself. This creeps her out. Oh, she may string him along for awhile, but as he loses control, she loses respect for him. A more sensible Don José would marry the girl his mother picked out, and would then quietly take a series of wonderful lovers, perhaps including Carmen. (Oh please. It was the 19th century.) This is keeping poetry and passion in proper balance.

Dear old Don José, like so many tenors, is passionate but dim. When he shows up in the last act to win Carmen back, he pleads: “There is still time; we can make this work.” And does this work? “Dude, your threats are bad enough, but you’re so booooring. Kill me, please, so I hear no more of your endless raving about love.” Being dim, unfortunately, doesn’t mean being harmless. And—spoiler alert—he kills her.

The tenor may be a wonderful singer, but, No, the one you need to watch is the baritone—the toreador. To him, love is a gamble; he knows that going in. Flirtatious yet aloof, bold yet gallant. Full of passion but quick with a poem. Yes, the baritone loses the girl as often as not, but the point is that he never loses himself.

Joy and peace. 

Thanksgiving in Plymouth and Jutland

Pilgrim:  How.
Squanto:  How? Isn't it obvious? As the fish decays, it releases nitrogen. In the soil, nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert this nitrogen into nitrates, a form that corn plants can metabolize. These nitrates are largely responsible for healthy leaf and stem growth. 

Holiday joy and peace, Camper.

You wouldn’t know it from his cheery disposition, but Your Uncle Jerry comes from a long line of stern, sober, devout, and stoic people. His ancestors on one side were dark Lutherans, and on the other side were merciless unhappy Puritans. As a child, Young Uncle Jerry learned that truth and righteousness were unacquainted with the joys of this world, and that purity of spirit is at odds with bodily pleasure. This kind of theology, Camper, is why good people go wrong.

Viewing the movie Babette’s Feast, which he does as a personal discipline every year during the winter holidays, Your Uncle Jerry feels as if he’s joining his ancestors for dinner. And like any black sheep returning home, he feels comfortable yet alienated. He even gets a little angry as he watches his ancestors not enjoying, not giving thanks for the exquisite meal that Babette has prepared just for them. He suffers through their long ungrateful silences, their refusal to acknowledge the bliss and blessing there on the table. Uncle Jerry can’t wait for his favorite movie to be over. He clamps his teeth over his own knuckles until the old general finally speaks.

The general, a secular, world-weary man trapped like Uncle Jerry at a winter meal in Jutland with people frozen in their own theological misery, finds himself amazed at what Babette has created. He is tasting with his entire body, rolling his eyes, puffing out his cheeks, examining each forkful and each glass of wine as if he cannot believe that anything so obviously a gift from heaven could exist in the same world with such dour, sour human beings. The general has dined in the most opulent restaurants in Europe, but only once has he tasted such a palpable mercy as Babette has laid before them tonight. That was many years and many wars ago, in Paris, and little does he know that Babette was the chef at that meal, too. At last, almost woozy with joy, the old general rises to offer a toast.

Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss each other. We in our weakness and short-sightedness believe that we must make choices in this life. We tremble at the risks of choosing—what to take, what to leave behind?

But no. What we choose is of no importance. Once in a great while, there comes a moment to open our eyes, and we realize that mercy is infinite. Mercy imposes no conditions. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. And lo, everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we have not chosen—this has also been granted.

For mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss each other.

You don't hear this stuff in Sunday School, Camper. Try to remember it. Peace and joy.

United We Stand

Or will you try and tell me that you’ve been too long at school?
That knowledge is not needed, that power does not rule?
—Gordon Lightfoot
lame old protest song.

Joy and peace.

Your Uncle Jerry is thinking about getting into politics. What this country needs is a few more citizens with the guts to speak truth to power, thinkers who will not shrink from making the unpopular argument. We need public intellectuals who will bravely stand in the face of public opinion and repeat what they’ve been hearing all day on CNN. Uncle Jerry has decided to become a pundit.

The recall election in the state of Wisconsin makes the need clear. Some of Uncle Jerry’s more soft-headed friends who happen actually to live in Wisconsin thought this election was about restoring accountability to executive power and about the runaway influence of Big Money in state politics. But the truth is there to see—in the media: this election was clearly a referendum on the threat to the American Way of Life posed by powerful labor unions that disappeared sometime in the 1970s.

Labor unions, as any news anchor with a smart board and a $5000 suit could tell you, are the bane of democracy. They are roving bands of firefighters, teachers, secretaries, and autoworkers, controlled from the shadows by cigar-chomping socialists. Union members aren’t real Americans; they’re unwashed shirkers, whose collars aren’t white, who have no gratitude for our democracy or for the millionaires who own it fair and square. They despise those who keep democracy safe through gerrymandering and through dismantling campaign finance regulations.

As a new member of the punditocracy, Your Uncle Jerry will make it a priority to remind American couch potatoes that this country wasn’t built by union workers, and it isn’t kept safe every day by police, firefighters, safety inspectors, teachers, and other blood-sucking unionists.

America was built by the blood, sweat, and tears of the fabulous. You think being born into wealth is easy? Well, it isn’t. It takes real imagination to invent things like tax loopholes for capital gains; it takes chutzpah, dedication, and vast networks of powerful friends to hoist bags and bags of money and to hide them in off-shore bank accounts. You think bootstrapping from the working class is hard? You should try it when the only straps available are the tassels on your Gucci loafers.

The voters in Wisconsin have made it clear, as all the pundits agree. Workers go too far when they band together demanding “economic justice.” As we stand here in the dawn of the Age of Romney, we must not be weighed down by demands from the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We owe them nothing. We must look up—way up—to our wealthiest one percent. Look at how they protect each other, how they congratulate each other, how they compete good-naturedly to write the biggest check to their personal senators. Look at them linked arm in arm. There we see, Camper, exactly what the Founders meant by “a more perfect union.”

Peace and joy.

In chapter 19, Molly and Rhinehart unite around the need to pull a scam. 

Bad Language

iSolamente Inglés!
—Uncle Jerry’s pal Victor

Peace and joy, Camper. It’s time once again for Your Uncle Jerry’s Lessons in Language Learning.

Why do we need other languages, anyway? When your Uncle Jerry was just a wee camper growing up in the north woods of North America, he knew a few people who spoke Yupik or Athabascan or German or Chinese or Swahili. He knew where his dad, Grandpa Jerry, had stashed an old letter from a friend in Puerto Rico—a letter all in Spanish.

For a while, Uncle Jerry felt that perhaps he should learn another language, too. But why bother? It is clear from everything you hear in school and town that the world is learning English. In fact, other languages are actually dying out; no one is speaking them anymore. Look it up, Scooter. You’ll like this: there are about 7000 languages right now, but half of them are declining rapidly.

And good riddance. Who can keep up with 7000 languages? Besides, if people in so-called other countries want to buy M&Ms, or KFC, or GE products, well, they’re going to have to learn the English alphabet, anyway.

Plus, you wonder what they have to hide—speakers of other languages. Why not just come out and say what's on their minds, instead of disguising it with foreign sounds and hidden meanings? If it weren’t for Chinese and Russian, we wouldn’t have had the Cold War. And what about Arabic? Did you realize the Arabs write backwards? Your Uncle Jerry’s congressman thinks this should have been our first clue that they were up to no good. Frankly, we don’t want young campers getting into Arabic; they’ll just learn to see the world from right to left. We don’t need to help the terrorists, do we?

Still. This is a little embarrassing, but lately, Your Uncle Jerry and the Missus have started learning another language. In spite of all the good and patriotic reasons to keep ourselves irretrievably ignorant, Your Uncle and Mrs. Jerry did find one good reason to study Spanish. It’s the kids—no entienden español.

Joy and peace.

In chapter eighteen Molly and the Geezer are working hard not to speak each other’s language.

Subjects and Positioning

Sometimes when I write a sentence like that,
I pretend I’m not me.
—My Friend Michele

Joy and peace, Camper, and welcome once again to Uncle Jerry’s Writer’s Corner. Open your little word-processing program to a blank page and copy down what My Friend Michele says above.

Pretending is a big part of writing; don’t kid yourself about that. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing: it could be fiction, a book report, a sales analysis, or a love letter. Point is, when you put yourself into words, you’re not just writing down what you think; you’re creating a character. You’re working from what them big-time, tenured professors call a “subject position.”

Having a subject position is nothing to be ashamed of. It just means you lean one way or another. In the act of writing, you are creating yourself and leaning yourself into a subject position. It's not your fault; you can’t avoid it.

Uncle Jerry’s friend L.T. Green, from Muleshoe, Texas, used to say he leaned one way or another only when he had to pass a little gas. Was L.T. a professor? Well-spotted, Camper. "Professor" is a subject position, too, though some professors are not full of gas.

Sometimes, amazingly, you find yourself writing along, and hey—you didn’t know you were going to write what you just wrote. Your position has changed. Things look different. It’s like finding yourself in someone else’s house, looking at furniture that doesn’t belong to you. You step over the cat and pick up the guitar; you look at the photos on the wall—you don’t know these people, but somehow they look familiar.

Once, as a small boy, Your Uncle Jerry found himself looking into a neighbor’s very well stocked liquor cabinet. What happened next, Uncle Jerry can’t remember, but the nice doctor is helping him recall some of the following weeks in the juvie detention center.

Never mind about that.

What Uncle Jerry’s friend Michele means by “I pretend I’m not me,” is simply this: when she writes herself into a new subject position, she tries it out for awhile. She leans into it. Why? Well, Camper, sometimes it’s just fun to see the world from a different angle. And sometimes everyone needs to pass a little gas.

Peace and joy.

Chapter Seventeen of Molly's story finds the uncles in a very difficult position.


Revenge is a dish
best eaten cold.

—lame old proverb

Joy and peace, Camper.

Revenge. Vengeance. Getting Even. Payback. Settling a score. To strike back at someone who has done you wrong is a primal instinct, and it is one Your Uncle Jerry recommends indulging as often as possible. But how often is that?

Uncle Jerry’s older sibling, Aunt Blue, was a pincher. And not just a pincher—a fingernail pincher. Aunt Blue lived mostly in the back seat of the family car on school days, from where she would often inflict, without ANY provocation, a most painful torture with two fingernails on the skin of Your Uncle Jerry’s thigh.

Did Uncle Jerry take revenge for this outrage? Dang right. He crushed her peanut butter sandwich.

This is deep biology talking. Don’t fight it. It is survival itself that drives us toward revenge. Why? Because revenge draws a line between us and the other person. It says “this is my side of the backseat; you stay over there, unless you like tread marks on your wonder bread.” It’s a beautiful thing, when you think about it. Even-ness is fundamentally democratic, and something we should all support.

Unbelievably, there is a certain class of persons who do not understand the fine symmetry of getting even. “Even” is not a concept they are interested in. "Above" is more what’s on their mind. "Over"—as in you.

Be careful of such persons; they have no sense of balance, and this makes them dangerous and unfunny. When tempted to settle a score with them, Camper, ask yourself two questions. 1) “Will I ever have to deal with this person again?” and 2) “Will I ever have to deal with this person again?” Uncle Jerry knows that’s the same question twice, but he doesn’t trust you to answer truthfully the first time. If the answer is Yes to either of these questions, your best revenge will be watching someone else take that person down.

There is another class of persons on whom you should never attempt revenge. This group includes those who look up to you, baristas, and honestly stupid people, especially those in elected office. Yes, yes, of course, they’re annoying. Yes, they deserve it. Yes, whatever. But listen, Camper. The only thing worse than NOT getting even with someone who is invincibly ignorant is GETTING even with them. Revenge is a dish eaten eye-to-eye. Which part of “even” don’t you understand? And you need the proper wine to serve with it. Duh.

Which brings us to: Uncle Jerry’s Six Persons Never to Pay Back.

  1. people who are truly evil
  2. people to whom you are important
  3. pets and politicians
  4. ex-spouses (see #1 and #3)
  5. writers
  6. people you might forget to watch carefully in the future

In our story, Molly sets out for revenge on Rhinehart. Let’s see how that goes.


Give us this day our daily mask.
—Tom Stoppard
lame old playwright

Joy and peace, Camper.

If you flip a coin once, the odds are 50/50 that it will come up heads.

But if you flip that coin 99 times, and it comes up heads every time, and you flip it one more time, what are the odds then? And what if it comes up heads 100 times? What are the odds that, in your excitement, you’ll turn a flip yourself, tail-over-teakettle, right there in the school hallway just to celebrate?

What are the odds that you’ll land in the hospital with your knee bent around your backside?

The adolescent brain, science tells us, is a very poor judge of risk. It always wants one more flip of the coin, one more handspring, one more text while driving. This explains why so many teenage campers never get to celebrate their 20th birthday. Once again, the mystery of evolution boils down to thinning the herd.

Your Uncle Jerry knows you hear a different message from Random Happy Adult Persons. Enjoy your youth, they say; do stuff; explore; try your wings. Life is short. Whatever. Look, they just want you to like them, so of course they’re going to lie to you. Life is short? So true. Listen to that stuff, dude, and you may find out just how short life can be.

Your Uncle Jerry is older than he looks. (Oh, stop. Really? 40-something?) Your Uncle Jerry left his adolescent brain behind him many years ago, and he hasn’t looked back . . . since breakfast.

Yes. Well. As it turns out, those of us who do make it past 20 without crutches are haunted by the suspicion that we actually didn’t have much fun in our youth. We’ve been careful, we’ve been responsible, like our parents told us to be; we’ve been playing it safe. And all we ever got for our trouble was safety and responsibility and with luck a little money. Cold comforts.

Every day we shower, shave, shine our shoes, and shampoo. Struggle into a grown-up mask, and slump out the door. That’s why they call it being adult—it’s dull. People depend on us. People will suffer if we pull off our daily mask and let the top of our head get some air. People will suffer if we get excited about the wonders of life and youth and handsprings, and forget that we’re supposed to be somewhere, doing something.

And that’s what you have to look forward to, young person, if you manage to make it past your idiot years. Responsibility. Dependents. People who look a lot like you, asking for the car keys. Be careful, you will say. Don’t get hurt. And they will or they won’t, and either way, you’ll be the one paying for it.

I’ve got one word for you, Camper: Retirement. It’s even better in Spanish: Jubilación.

In retirement, your kids are grown, your job is done, your bills are paid (more or less), and people are suddenly very tolerant. Retirees get an incredible license to freak out, flake out, chill out. I mean, just look at what they wear: would they be wearing that if they cared what you think? Look at where they go; France, Panama, Taiwan, anywhere they want. And when they get there, they get a discount. Look at what they get excited about: Everything! Food, gambling, travel, burlesque, pickle ball, the Internet, wine, rodeo.

You think flipping a coin or waving a game controller is a thrill. You’re going to love retirement . . . if you live long enough.

Peace and Joy.

In chapter fifteen of Molly’s story, the “aunts and uncles” are setting a plan in motion they think will save their own retirements.