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.

The Emperor's New Schools

En cada libro que leo
siempre encuentro una palabra
que sobreviva al olvido
y me acompaña.

In each book I read
I always find a word
that outlives forgetting
and comes with me

--Mario Benedetti
lame old poet from Uruguay

Peace and joy, Camper.

Step into Your Uncle Jerry’s library for a moment, my friend. What do you see? Empty shelves?? No, no, no. Por favor.

Clean shelves—that’s what you see. Shelves liberated from the weight of words. Shelves that no longer bear the poetic burden. They hold the Emperor’s new books, you might say, heh heh. That’s a joke, son—a useless literary quip that you would understand if your teachers had been allowed to skip the testing for one year and just “teach” instead.

Fortunately, that is not possible. So think of these as the shelves that you will fill, year on year, as you build the library of your mind.

Your Uncle Jerry, years ago, had shelves like these. In those days, sadly, schools forced a young camper to build a collection of words, images, maps and math problems. To build a set of ideas to think with, let’s say. A starter set of life shelves. And the wider you made your shelves, the better, in those days.

But schools found they could not control what young persons would do with the words they were given. Duh. Students were discovered deliberately shelving ideas upside down; some were learning words in other languages; some began not to support our troops. The system wasn’t working.

Much better is the approach now, where a camper like you is given a very narrow set of shelves, and your task is to burden them with only the lightest of weights. Yes, exactly: I’m talking about certificates.

A certificate, my friend, is far superior to a book. When you read a book, you get a handful of words—and some of them are completely new. How does that make you feel? Dumb. And the bigger the book, the dumber you feel. A certificate, on the other hand, proves that you have done something hard. You have passed a test. It automatically makes you feel smart; that’s why they call it a certificate.

And when your school day is consumed in test preparation, the certificate says that you are not weighed down with the baggage of unused thought, extra words. If the school has done its job, you know only what you need to pass the test. You command every word on the test.

Okay, true, a certificate is too thin to stand up on the bookshelf, but if you lay it flat, it takes up more room. Don’t complicate things.

The shelves we need, the schools we need, are uncomplicated ones. We’ve had enough of feeling dumb in school, haven’t we, camper? We need schools that will tell campers exactly what will be on the test, and we need certificates to prove they learned exactly that. We need books that include only the words we already know. We need the Emperor’s new books in the Emperor’s new schools.

Joy and peace.

In our next chapter, Molly brings home exactly the wrong boy from school—or at least Rhinehart thinks so.

Its Own Punishment

If you wish to inflict a heartless and
malignant punishment upon a young person,
pledge him to keep a journal for a year.

—Mark Twain
lame old humorist and writer

Peace and joy. Certain young persons of Your Uncle Jerry’s acquaintance have alleged that a tone of gentle bitterness occasionally creeps into this blog. Bitter? Uncle Jerry? Nothing could be further from true. Your Uncle Jerry is not now, nor has he ever been, a lonely, rancid, and bitter, bitter old bachelor who wears the same longjohns all winter without changing. In fact, Uncle Jerry has two pair of longjohns, and changes them religiously just after Christmas.

Nor is Uncle Jerry an old man soured by a childhood of hardship and isolation. Not at all. Uncle Jerry’s childhood was a joyous one. Uncle Jerry’s foster family included him in all family activities, just as if he were one of the servants. Uncle Jerry is certainly not embittered by memories of the chores, the rags, the nights shivering in the barn, or the constant hazing by six older orphan boys.

If there was one cruelty inflicted by Uncle Jerry’s foster family, it was that, one winter, they encouraged Uncle Jerry to write.

After only two years of sixth grade, Uncle Jerry had begun to show some promise as a student. He was caught sometimes rhyming. On occasion he invented stories—stories of pirates or dragons or orphans who grew up to find themselves heirs to fortunes. This will never do, said Uncle Jerry’s foster family. Great believers in natural consequences, Uncle Jerry’s foster parents devised a scheme to teach him the danger of too much literacy. It was a scheme that Mark Twain himself would salute.

Each evening after chores, Bible study, and polishing the older boys’ shoes, Your Uncle Jerry was sent to sit alone at the hearth with charcoal and tablet. Write, said his parents. Write what you know. Write what happened today. Write your hopes and fears, your disappointments and your dreams. Fill the page, they said. Write. Only after you write, may you go to bed.

A heartless and malignant punishment indeed. Every night, exhausted from the day's labor and the older boys' playful tortures, Uncle Jerry faced that tablet. Write a page, they said. The ghastly emptiness of that page lay like a white desert Uncle Jerry must cross to reach the land of sleep.

Soon the page began to rise up in his mind during the day, hauntingly, so that he could hardly enjoy his chores or the humiliations of school without imagining what he might write about before bed. Accidentally turning to a blank leaf in a schoolbook, Uncle Jerry would flinch and sweat, and compulsively begin to fill it with verse. Hospital walls, train cars, toilet paper---every blank surface cried out to be covered with words.

Alas, the white cow in the barn.

But never mind about her. This cruel regimen, Camper, is the sole cause of what the nice doctor calls Uncle’s Jerry’s “difference.” So don't think it's bitterness, nor cynicism nor misanthropy (that means a hatred for ants, boy; look it up), nor any moral failing at all. What triggers Uncle Jerry’s unique twitches is actually quite simple.

Blancopapyriferaphobia: fear of the empty page.

Joy and peace.

In our story, however, you will find some bitter people. Bitter and conniving and highly amusing. Chapter thirteen is ready.

Book Reviewing—A Thankless Job

If you can’t say anything nice,
Say nothing at all.

lame old folk wisdom

Peace and joy.

From time to time, Your Uncle Jerry will hear a young camper resolve never again to write a negative book review. This is a mistake.

It’s a mistake, my friend, because a book review is supposed to be negative. That’s why they call it a book review.

A good, vicious, unfair, uninformed response from an ill-tempered reader is just what most books and most writers need. It’s like Uncle Jerry’s mom (Grandma Jerry) always used to say as she dragged him by the wrist to the woodshed: A proper thrashing actually makes a person stronger. Why? It stiffens the spine, thickens the skin. Even if you don’t deserve it? Listen, camper: you know you deserve it, if not for this time, then for times before when you didn’t get caught.

And, think about it: a bad review brings just as much attention to the writer as a good review. They’ll thank you later. Your Uncle Jerry always writes negative book reviews for just this reason. There are writers all over the country who are speechless with gratitude for Your Uncle Jerry. 

Often, Uncle Jerry will review a book that he hasn’t even read. You may be surprised to hear it isn’t necessary to read a book in order to know what you think of it. That’s only because you don’t read School Library Journal. For a professional reviewer, knowing just the title or the author is usually enough. Take a glance at the cover online, if you need to feel all research-y. 

And negative reviewing is good not only for the writer; it’s good for the reviewer, too. Sharpen the pencil, sharpen the mind. If you want to improve your own work, spend some time destroying the work of another.

But remember, Camper, insulting someone in public is a thankless job. It takes practice, dedication. Fortunately, a book review is a perfect venue for practice, because your target cannot retaliate without being accused of sour grapes. 

Now, some may call it chicken to trash another human being while hiding behind cheap cover like “it’s only my opinion.” But let’s face it, as a reviewer, you need any protection you can get. 

Chapter Twelve is ready for your review.

Joy and peace.

What People Want

This: Let me show you what people want from life.
Not this: Let me show you what a cool writer I am.

—My Pal Zan (aka, R.R. Knudson)

Peace and Joy and welcome once again to Uncle Jerry’s Writer’s Corner. Open your notebook to a blank page, Camper, and take down what my pal Zan says at the top of this blog. My pal Zan was the crabbiest, funniest, most irritatingly candid writer Your Uncle Jerry has ever known. She’s deceased now, thank heavens. One can stand only so much good advice.

Zan wrote more than 40 books of YA fiction and nonfiction. She studied constantly, wrote ferociously, and she spoke like she had no time to waste—certainly none to waste on you.

“Okay, this rewrite isn’t terrible,” Zan once said to Uncle Jerry. “But boy does it have Second Book all over it.” She roughed up her own hair and shook her head. “I’ll be so glad when you’re done with it.”

It was actually Uncle Jerry’s fourth book—a fact that I almost wrote to her later, but the nice doctor that Uncle Jerry sees on alternate Thursdays thought it could be a mistake. Never mind about that.

The problem with your writing, Camper, is that you don’t have enough Zan in it. Surely, you know this. Look at it. Why does it take forever to get where it’s going? Why does it lose focus? Most often, because it’s too busy showing off how clever you are.

I know I know I know. That’s NOT what you’re doing. Those lines are not ornamental; they contribute something vital to characterization, plot, exposition. Whatever. Leave them, in that case.

But here’s the deal. Every time you sit down to write, look again at what Zan says in your notebook.

Now write what people want from life.

In chapter eleven, Molly’s relatives are trying to figure this out, too—what they want from life.

Joy and peace.

Such Stuff as Dreams

Take your passion, and make it happen!

—lame old pop song

Joy and peace.

If there’s anything that grieves Your Uncle Jerry’s tender heart, it is the number of young persons who are led astray by believing in their dreams. Pay attention, Camper. Dreams are for bedtime. They are not roadmaps to happiness.

When a pop song, a fortune cookie, a coach, or a movie star says “follow your dream,” the wise young person will do what Your Uncle Jerry does. Deep knee bends repeatedly until you pass out.

Every young person should memorize the words of Fowler, wisest bird in the movie Chicken Run: “Madam, I am a chicken. The British Royal Air Force would never put a chicken behind the controls of an aeroplane!”

See how he did that? Fowler agrees with Uncle Jerry. The only benefit of high-flying dreams is that, sooner or later, they will introduce you to the firm reality of earth. Until you spread your wings, you'll never know how far you can walk.

Which is to say, my friend, you’re just not NBA material. You are not going to be on American Idol. And Hollywood, young person, is not going to give you a shot. Seriously, look at yourself.

Oh, yes, Uncle Jerry knows. You’re awesome. Your friends are awesome. Everybody’s awesome. Now listen up, Camper, I shall say this only once: you are a chicken. You are fat, ignorant, and your wings have been clipped. (It’s a metaphor. Get over it.) A chicken may DREAM all day long, but if you toss one in the air, they will not so much fly as plummet.

Does this mean you’re not awesome? Whatever. Awesomeness does not put a chicken behind the controls of a Learjet. You are probably an awesome chicken. Start there. Get passionate about your chickenhood. About how far you can walk. Later, let's talk about getting airborne.

In chapter ten, Molly begins to show the meaning of clipped wings to her evil Aunt Sonia.

Peace and joy.


Mendacity--ain't that lies and lying?

Tennessee Williams,
lame old playwright

Peace and joy, Camper.

The world of arts and letters is full of lies and lying, backs stabbed, and hearts broken. Know why? (Arts and letters—that means books, kiddo; movies and books. Look it up.) Why? Because mendacity and other forms of trickery are some of the most fun you can have with your shoes on.

Surely you understand that tricks make the world go around. What if the serpent in the Garden of Eden hadn’t tricked Adam and Eve? Exactly: nothing would have happened! They would have stood around forever, naked and scratching. The world as you know it would not exist. You and I would not exist.

How about Hansel and Gretel? If Gretel hadn’t pretended to be stupid (“But I don’t know HOW to light the oven, Ms. Witch.”), those kids would have been gone. Poof! Crispy critters. Witch dinner. Think about Br’er Rabbit, about Coyote, about Jack and the Beanstalk. About Annie and Johnson in that silly book Entrapment. Without a trickster, the world doesn’t move, Camper. That’s what I’m talking about.

Think about writers. Stay with me now—you need to know this. A novelist is person who lies to tell a truth. It’s a riddle, isn’t it? A real mystery. Novels, of course, are totally made up. Your Uncle Jerry himself is a total fiction. But here I am writing to you. Still, doesn’t a novel sometimes lead you to think something new, something true? So there you go.

Point is, young person, the Good Lord loves a trickster. Those lousy friends of yours, that guy, that girl, who seemed absolutely fascinating—yes, they’re real stinkers. Oh, I hate them. But you and they make a perfect match. Without someone to BE tricked—that’s you, Camper—all tricking would stop, and the world would come to a screeching halt. You want that on your conscience? I don’t think so. So we need you to keep reading, to keep believing in books and friends and lovers and Your Uncle Jerry. At least, try . . . Come on, tricksters are cute; we like them.

But don’t get me wrong. You’re completely right, too. Those friends of yours, they bear watching. Don’t ever take your eye off them.

Your Uncle Jerry watches all his friends very very closely, the little weasels. The more they talk, the more Uncle Jerry just listens. The more they say yes, absolutely, they’ll do something, the more Uncle Jerry knows they absolutely won’t. The more they say “trust me . . .” well, you get the picture. The Good Lord loves a trickster—mostly because they teach us how to protect ourselves.

Because listen, Camper, the one thing tricksters and back-stabbers don’t ever expect is for you to be wise. They never see that coming. Once you start to EXPECT people to let you down, then you can just smile and nod, and make yourself a little backup plan. And when you do that . . . well, you’ve turned the tables, haven’t you? You’ve become the trickster. How cool is that.

And one last thing. There comes a day when you have a friend (or okay, a parent, maybe a lover), and they say “I will never let you down; I got your back; I am true to you forever,” and hey: it turns out they ARE. That’s the best trick of all.

Molly's wondering if she can trust Rhinehart. Chapter nine is ready.

Joy and peace.