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Baking & Broiling a Reader, Westinghouse Style

Posted by Rick · May 30th, 2005 · 3 Comments

I introduced my wife to Vodka this morning. Todd Vodka. Vodka has an interesting style of writing and a quirky approach to life that, for some reason I don’t quite understand, reminds me of Saki. Or maybe it’s just because I expect to find both of them in a decent Japanese bar.

At any rate, whenever I read his stuff, another odd thing occurs: I dig out my oldest journals and start reading them again. I don’t know why. It just happens. I feel a kind of warm, nostalgic and strangely sad feeling, made all the stranger because there’s an undercurrent of goodness to it.

So today I thought I’d create a whole new category — Old Journal Entries — and periodically (probably right after having another shot of Vodka) I’ll post one here. This will also help me keep my blog “fresh” (isn’t that odd?) when I don’t have time for writing something original.

One nice thing about these journal entries is that they come complete with dates and times. I was somewhat fanatical about those sorts of things then. (More weirdness: I was also fanatical about writing them with a fountain pen and I preferred a specific Mead 3-subject notebook, 9 1/2 by 6 inches, college ruled, with rounded edges. In fact, when they started making them with the squared-off corners, I quit writing until blogs came along. And if I made a mistake while writing, because I became distracted — I often sat for hours and wrote in local restaurants — I’d sit for as long as 10 or 15 minutes, trying to figure out how to complete my thought without having to cross out the error and start again; I didn’t want any “mistakes” in the journals. I credit that move with helping me learn to write more creatively.)

I’ve chosen this first entry under the influence of Vodka. His post made me wonder how people come to be the way they are; what shapes us. One of my favorite sayings is from Kierkegaard. I like it so much I even took up cross-stitching once just so I could make a little sampler with the quote. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Accordingly, this first entry in the new category contains memories of perhaps the most important event in my life. I confess to having elided some of the more personal — and the more smarmy — portions of the entry for this blog article.

September 10, 1991 0905 hours
Cross-stitched Plaque

My hands are so cold, I can hardly write. A moped is obviously not going to get me through the winter; it’s back to driving my truck.

I’ve been given a writing assignment: I’m to write “What I Like About Myself,” “What I Don’t Like About Myself” and “What I Would Change About Myself.” What I would change doesn’t necessarily have to be what I don’t like; according to the parameters of the assignment the latter does not necessitate inclusion of the former.

Already I sense that my journal entry is altered by the nature of the assignment. On to the assignment…

What I Like About Myself

My first feeling on receiving the assignment of writing these things down was that this would be the hardest part of the assignment. It is not.

The primary thing I value of my Self is my creativity and problem-solving ability. Caveats will be delivered in the next section; for now we accentuate the positive.

I have always had a creative urge. As a child I wrote endlessly long and innumerable stories, usually about Snoopy and the Red Baron. I carried my sheaf of stories with me often and the last time I remember seeing them, I believe, was when we traveled cross-country and I put them under the front-seat of our car so they would be safe from getting trampled. As far as I know, they may be sitting there safe as can be while the old Rambler station wagon rusts around them. (In recent years, I’ve thought of those stories a lot. I’d like a chance to see what kind of little boy I was, and what kind of stories I wrote.)

Because of my verbal facility, I’m relatively good at story-writing still (again, caveats to follow) and also occasionally write poetry. One of my poems was published in the eighth grade school newspaper. It was overlaid on a tree that I drew just for the occasion (the poem was about a tree). I’ve since written dozens of poems, but the only one I really like myself ends with these lines:

And now the unbidden rays of sunlight,
      Invade the once Stygian darkness of the room,
Illuminating the aspirin bottle on the table;
      The vacuousness of which,
Is testimony to the payment…
      Of a debt which cancels all others.

[Editorial Note: I put the full poem online here.]

There are many reasons I like these lines, but the major reason for my pleasure regarding them is that the entire five or six verses were written after accidentally running across the presentation of “a debt which cancels all others” in Roget’s Thesaurus as a euphemism for “suicide,” or maybe it was “death.” Anyway, I believe a poet in the fifth century B.C.E. originally wrote it. I was quite pleased at turning it into the closing line of a good and long poem.

I have a bit of an artistic bent. It’s not unreasonable to imagine I could be a writer, or an ad-man…. I’ve “designed” a very simple personal-type card which centers around the phrase “another experiment in applied metaphysics” and my name above it in a crisp sans-serif typeface….

Research and self-study skills are perhaps some of my most rewarding skills. There are few questions to which I cannot find the answer. This ability was developed out of dire necessity and under unpleasant circumstances, but it is a skill I would not trade for anything. Let me relate two incidents, one of which I credit as the origin of this ability, and the other as an example of its efficacy in buoying me as I navigate a life of stark and often ennuitic despair.

I have since been told that the following incident is not as I remember it. I will first record my memory and afterward note how I’m told it should be modified.

As I recall, I was not yet in school when I wandered into the kitchen while my father was cooking dinner one night and thus received my most memorable lesson in not knowing something and being stupid enough to ask someone.

“What’s that say?,” I asked, pointing at the central knob on the old white Westinghouse stove. Six eyes looked at me, momentarily silent. Four belonged to the Westinghouse; the two brown ones were my father’s. As he turned a dial on the front, one of the Westinghouse’s eyes sputtered and flamed.

“What do you think it says?,” my father replied. I was trapped. Again the stove sputtered — in sympathy, or giddy pleasure at my discomfiture, I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know.” The fateful, fatal words squeezed out of me.

“You know your alphabet — sound it out.” But the only sound I could hear was hissing. My breath hissed past scared and clenched jaws; the gas hissed in the stove; and again my father hissed “sssssssound it out.”

At 4 a.m. I had gone to bed with these lessons indelibly burned into my brain:

  1. If you want to know something, don’t ask, find it out yourself some other way.
  2. People who can read don’t have to ask “what that says” or “what this means.”
  3. Not knowing how to read means missing supper.

In addition, I made the following resolutions:

  1. Learn to read better than Dad.
  2. Know how to answer any question put to you. (Remember, my father had asked me what it said and my not knowing got the blame for my being in this predicament.)
  3. Never buy a Westinghouse.

By the way, the words were Bake and Broil, and no, I’ll never forget what the front of that stove looked like.

Subsequently, as a young man, this story came up for discussion with my parents. According to them, it was not dinner. The day was Thanksgiving and Dad was putting the turkey in the oven for a day of cooking. His anger, which I felt had all been aimed at my incompetence, was really at the school system and my second-grade teacher. According to them, and contrary to my memories, I was already in school and should have been able to read simple words like “bake” and “broil.”

Dad says we moved to the kitchen table where he used two pieces of paper with letters of the alphabet all around them to teach me phonemics. (According to him, my school used the rote system.)

I do vaguely recall my father doing this, but I remember it as a separate memory, not temporally related to the above trauma. I vaguely also recall not feeling as traumatized during the phonemics lesson (but I still remember tears) and, finally, feeling empowered when everything finally clicked.

I went on to be such an avid reader that my mother once asked the school library not to allow me more than three books per day. [Editorial Note: These were usually the relatively short little books about the lives of people like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, etc.] Both parents say I read so much as a child that they had to force me to go play, to come for dinner, and that sometimes at night they found me reading under my covers with a flashlight! And I kept my first resolution — my father, who oddly enough can’t spell to save his life, always asks me how to spell words, and has since I was in junior high — I’m the better reader….

The above entry ended with the words, “There is no time to complete the assignment now.” Guess my entire life has been too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Many years later, when I was in my thirties, my father apologized to me. “For what?,” I asked. He told me that he was certain I would be stuck in school the rest of my life. At that time, I was finally focusing on completing my degree in philosophy after nearly completing it in several other subjects. Little did either of us know that ten years later, I would decide I had to go back to school again. This time, it was law school. Anyway, Dad figured he “programmed” me for learning after that incident, because he himself hadn’t graduated high school and didn’t want that same thing to happen with me.

I don’t regret what he did. Not for a minute.

It’s funny, though, how often I think about that stove.

Categories: Old Journal Entries


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Todd Vodka // May 31, 2005 at 3:41 am

    I am going to go out on a limb and interpret your observations as complimentary; ?tell you that I?m awfully flattered that someone of your ability thought to mention my humble blog.

  • 2 Rick Horowitz // May 31, 2005 at 6:31 am

    No need to tree yourself! It was, indeed, complimentary. I pop into your blog periodically to see what new things you’ve written. You don’t write often, but you write well.

    I enjoy reading your stuff.

  • 3 Todd Vodka // May 31, 2005 at 8:38 am

    Thanks again. I do write often though. I just don’t post often.

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