Building Character

Yep, Uncle Mike.
He was a real character . . .

—lame old line at any family reunion

Peace and joy, Camper.

Sometimes older relatives are known as “characters.” These relatives carry a wealth of wisdom born of bitter bitter experience, and they often feel a grave responsibility to pass on their wisdom to the young. This is how young campers build their own store of bitter bitter experience. It’s a folkloric process. Left alone, we might listen only to our parents, and thereby miss many mistakes that these family “characters” have found so self-destructive in their own lives.

Your Uncle Jerry’s favorite relative, Great Uncle Jerry, modeled many cheerful bad ideas. It is through following his advice, in fact, that Uncle Jerry developed some of his most resilient “character” flaws.

“But your mom said not to run around naked. She said nothing about riding your bike.”

“What do you mean you’ve never had rum in your milk?”

“I’ll tell you everything I know about women, boy: absolutely zilch.”

“That is no way to roll a joint. Did you learn nothing in eighth grade??”

“If you major in humanities, you'll be fine.”

“Tell her it’s not her fault; it’s yours. Tell her you’re not good enough for her. Yeah, that one always works.”

What a character. It is thanks to him that Your Uncle Jerry hands out cigarettes at Halloween, knows how to make a quiche, and missed any chance at wealth and comfort in retirement. If Great Uncle Jerry were still alive today, Your Uncle Jerry would cheerfully kill him. But we digress.

In chapter eight of our story, Molly begins to absorb some wisdom from the old character in her life.

Joy and peace.


Bank error in your favor:
Collect $200.

—"Chance card" in Monopoly,
lame old board game

Joy and peace, Camper.

Your Uncle Jerry was an adopted child. His birth parents were wealthy, globe-trotting industrialists, who made their primary home in St. Cloud, Minnesota. They were an admirable and glamorous couple, if somewhat distracted. When his parents flew to Paris or Nairobi or Cuenca, as they often did for weeks at a time, they left Uncle Jerry in the care of an elderly matron. A dear old thing, she had the unlikely name of Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy—though everyone called her Buttercup.

Buttercup also tended children for poor families. It was an act of charity on her part, for she surely didn’t need the money, living as she did at the mansion of Uncle Jerry’s parents.

You must be wondering what this has to do with banking, chance cards, and Molly’s inheritance. All in good time, my friend. Your Uncle Jerry is a master storyteller; every detail and hint that he offers is crucial. It’s well-considered and unforgettable. Where were we?

If Buttercup, this saintly woman, had a single flaw, it would be . . . yes, forgetfulness. However could she do it? She mixed up the infant Uncle Jerry with a child belonging to another family—a family, through no fault of their own, substantially below Uncle Jerry’s tax bracket.

The other child was a four-year-old Ojibwe with earrings, a hook, and a Spiderman tattoo. She was a lovely child, bless her heart, and a Spanish speaker.

You exclaim: Spanish-speaking?? Surely Uncle Jerry’s parents should have noticed that right away! So true, and this is a point that Uncle Jerry makes often in his talks with the nice doctor.

In the board game of life, sadly, sometimes you are handed a card from the deck of chance. How rueful was the day, recently, when Uncle Jerry noticed in the news that his real parents had sold yet another patent to Apple. Somewhere, a very wealthy child is sipping a tropical fruit drink with one hand.

Like Your Uncle Jerry, our heroine Molly finds herself unprepared for her inheritance. What's in Grandma Claire’s will is a big surprise to everyone. Here is chapter seven.

Peace and joy.

Giving Season

Ego sum pauper.
Nihil habeo.
Cor meum dabo.

--Lame old Latin canon

Peace and joy, Camper, but beware the SEASON of peace and joy.

The season of giving is the season of anxiety, and it is not to be taken lightly. When the three wise men stumbled into town bearing gifts, they started a tradition that has become a 2000-year burden to campers all over the world.

First of all, when you make it a “season,” you make it an obligation. Did anyone ask you, young person, or did anyone ask Your Uncle Jerry, if we WANTED to have a gift-giving season? I don’t think so. It was simply declared a season by bleeding-heart do-gooders.

“Look,” they said, “Look how the wise men and the shepherds bring gifts. Let us, like them, open the cigar box under the bed where we’ve been keeping our secret stash, and let us squander its contents on the hope that making someone else happy will also make us a better person.” I ask you.

So now we’re obligated to spend a month’s allowance on gifts for relatives and loved ones with no guarantee that we’ll ever see any payback. And that’s not the worst of it. How do we know what to get them? What if they don’t like what we bring? What if they get us something we hate? Uncle Jerry is not comfortable when he can’t control things.

One season, when Uncle Jerry was a just a young whippersnapper like yourself, he bought his mother, Grandma Jerry, a jolly good-looking two-dollar ankle bracelet. It had a “silver” chain and three little stars (one for each wise man, Uncle Jerry thought), which were made of a sturdy plastic substance and only slightly broken. (This breakage might have occurred during the three days it spent in Uncle Jerry’s pocket.)

“Oh,” said Grandma Jerry, smiling as she picked off the pocket fuzz, “you shouldn’t have.”

Uncle Jerry wasn’t quite sure what she meant, until he found the chain and stars in the trash. In the trash—not even the recycling! This later became the subject of one of Uncle Jerry’s talks with the nice doctor.

Never mind about that. Here’s the point: Even the wise men made mistakes with their gifts. I mean: gold, frankincense and myrrh? Not even a dradle?

The gold was okay—always appropriate. But myrrh is about as proper a choice for a child’s present as a can of refried beans, and I don’t mean the lard-free kind. Frankincense? Were they trying to cure bladder cancer? Did they think the holy child had asthma? Had they consulted any gift adviser, these not-so-wise men would have traded in the frankincense and myrrh for at least an iPod, if not a Wii with a light saber app. I mean, come on. It’s Christmas!

So it’s complicated. Your Uncle Jerry, after years of therapy, has learned that the best approach in gift-giving, no matter the occasion, is to go for quantity, preferably in small gifts, and never to store them in your pocket. This brings us inevitably to . . .

Your Uncle Jerry’s Gift-Giving Guidelines

· Do your homework, for once. Listen for hints, and write them down—you know you won’t remember.

· Don’t let it go till the day before, like you did last year; that was a disaster.

· Don’t worry about blowing people away with a huge gift—that’s a strategy that only dads can pull off, and even they mostly get it wrong.

· Important: Give lots of little stuff. This will almost always mean you manage at least one thing right, like the wise men did with the gold.

· One gift that's a little bit funny, every time.

· Something edible, for sure. Cigars count here. Or, for your dad, one of those 24 ounce cans of Australian beer in a festive cozy.

· Never socks. Puleeze. I shouldn’t have to tell you this.

· Yes to a classic toy, like a kaleidoscope, a top, a Jew’s harp or kazoo. (Look it up, boy; look it up.)

· Music only if you have better taste than the recipient, which, from the looks of you, I’m guessing you don’t.

· Never make the gift yourself, unless you have a college degree in it. Just trust me on this, and don't argue.

· Most of all, cor tuum das. Give your heart. A gift without feeling is a kiss without a mustache. (And vice versa, of course.)

None of which has anything to do with chapter six of Molly and Rhinehart. Your Uncle Jerry can't force a connection every time. Gimme a break.

Joy and peace.


[Government outrage at] a massive document dump
which WikiLeaks gave to news organizations.

—CNet News
lame old news organization

Joy and peace, Camper.

Your Uncle Jerry noticed recently that some young persons are being pursued by The Authorities for having leaked certain documents to the public. The documents were actually rather embarrassing to The Authorities, so naturally they wanted to keep those documents secret.

At his age, Uncle Jerry is opposed to leakage of any kind. If these documents had dribbled out over a long period of time, they might have gone undetected—at least in crowded places. But, in fact, the leak in this case was more like a gush, so naturally it got noticed right away.

Worse, the name of the crew that had the accident is “Wikileaks.” How silly is that? Why not wear a tee-shirt that says “Oops: My Bad.” Much better to have a name that conceals your problem. One suggestion: “Information Plumbing Solutions.”

Think about it, Camper. Let’s say your posse has an hysterical fear of gay campers, or of campers who don’t believe in the Second Coming. Don’t leak this embarrassing fact by naming your group “American Red Necks” or “Sarah’s Hate Mongers for Jesus.” That’s just asking to be discovered. Instead, think of a friendly, inviting, festive name; call yourselves “The Tea Party,” or maybe “Fair and Balanced.” This way, you can leak when you need to, and maybe no one will notice.

Because Authorities don’t have a sense of humor about leakage—their own or anyone else’s. That’s why they’re called Authorities. If you need to leak, a smart camper will do it discreetly. Which brings us to:

Your Uncle Jerry’s Rules of Leakage:

1. If an old person has been using your laptop, always check the settings.

2. Cross your knees before blogging or sneezing.

3. Sit next to someone you can blame.

Here’s what happens to Molly in chapter five. She knows how to hold out.

The Question of Orphanhood

If pity you can feel,
forgo your cruel employ.
Have pity on my lonely state:
I am an orphan boy!

—W.S. Gilbert
lame old pirate operetta

Peace and joy, Camper.

Young persons have wonderful questions; don’t listen to your parents on this. What do they know? Parents are impressed with you only when you’re a baby.

“Oh, would you listen at that? She just said ‘euphemism!’ Harold, come here! Tasha just said ‘euphemism!’ Harold! Get your mother on the phone.”

When you’re older and have something serious to discuss, parents are just not that good.

“Why does America have a bicameral legislature??? Now you listen here, young man. America may not be perfect, but you’d best be grateful to live here at all, instead of some place like . . . like France, where they don’t even have a legislature!”

But since they’re confused by everything you say, the best question to ask your mother or father is some version of the classic trio:

· who were my real parents?

· why does that woman keep calling for Dad?

· nothing bad happens when you put water in the gas tank, does it?

Your Uncle Jerry was an adopted child; that's why he has what the nice doctor calls “abandonment issues.”

Abandonment can excuse a multitude of issues—such as that prison-style tattoo you got in eighth grade and still haven’t showed your mom. When she confronts you at the swimming pool, you just say, “I needed to find out if you really love me—and you've answered my question.”

Chapter Four

Dark and Wintry Thoughts

Darkness and snow descend.
The clock on the mantelpiece has nothing to recommend.

--W.H. Auden
lame old defender of high culture.

Joy and Peace.

In winter, like many campers, Your Uncle Jerry finds himself a little blue. The snow. The darkness. The neighbors pass by on the street, judging decorations and straining to be cheerful.

There are so many things about winter that care nothing about you. Cold weather’s only purpose is to snuff out your life. The sun has turned away. You hate your boots, and there’s a hole in your glove. At night, the ice weasels sniff at the gaps around the door.

The holidays are all about family, but we both know that relatives are a mixed bag. When you’re a young person, especially, it’s amazing to discover that aunts and uncles can be so completely wrong about who you are.

“Here you go, Buddy. You love the white meat. And LOTS of gravy.”

“No, he hates white meat—don’t you, Buddy. Have some green-bean casserole.”

“What you wanna be when you grow up, kiddo? Stock broker, like me?”

“Buddy likes music. He wants to be a singer.”

“Give him some of my cranberry relish; he’ll eat that.”

“He’ll eat what he’s told to eat!”

“Oh, like you should talk.”

“Can’t make any money singing, you know. Terrible waste of time.”

“When I was coming up, the kids ate in the kitchen, and they were quiet . . .”

Uncle Jerry understands. It’s the crowd, my friend. The crowd itself makes you lonesome, and this is what your English teacher would call a paradox. (Crowd = Loneliness. Get it? You need to brush up, Camper; school starts again soon.)

Not that long ago, there was one person in your family who really understood. Maybe she was your grandmother, or an older cousin, or maybe that unmarried friend of the family who everybody winked about behind the hand. Unfortunately for you, it’s winter, and that person has died.

Here’s chapter three.

Sneak Preview

This is a hell of a good book.

—lame blurb about someone else’s book
(Sara Zarr’s book, if you must know.
It’s okay; go ahead and read it. Whatever.)

Peace and joy, campers.

Some young persons have made the occasional sarcastic remark about the pace at which Your Uncle Jerry adds a post to the blogosphere: not often, that is. A fair comment (although not the sort that most effectively motivates a person). In fact, Your Uncle Jerry has been busy writing, and he’s happy to share.

What’s he been writing? Not blogs, clearly. Not status updates on Facebook. Not even 140-character classics for the tweetscape. Uncle Jerry has gone old school: he’s written a novel.

Cool, you say, but is he going to post that novel here on the Uncle Jerry Blog? Yes, camper; yes, he is. Uncle Jerry’s Novel has twenty-five cheerful chapters, and he’s going to post one chapter per week just for readers of this space here.

If you’re looking for stalkers, vampires, and sublimated teen sex, you won’t find them here. Sorry, camper. This is nobody’s girl-fantasy about true love that overcomes a vexing difference in age, money, or species. No boy-myths here about righteous bolts of raw energy and a grim lust for revenge. If your taste is so last-semester, go to the mall.

Uncle Jerry writes only the truth. And, as you know if you’ve been listening, the truth . . . is hilarious. Uncle Jerry’s Novel—which, out of modesty, he’s calling Molly and the Geezer and the Death of Grandma Claire—is a joyful look at the highest of human values: greed, double-crossing, poor parenting, love, spite, and come-uppance. And a bit with a dog.

Chapters One and Two begin here.