Msnowe's Blog

Thermostat

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on December 18, 2009

We all complained the house was too cold. It’s the middle of winter in upstate New York, and he’s got the thermostat set to 62 degrees Fahrenheit after 10PM, and a cool 67 or 68 during the daytime hours. “Energy Savings!” he always boomed, as if the man knew or cared about Global Warming (this was before Al Gore invented the internet, or that rhetoric). Well, instead of fighting us, my dad gave up trying to explain himself as a tightwad and taped a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip to the bottom of the thermostat (the thermostat, like his electric razor or collection of Terry Brooks classics, was a known “do not touch” thing). To this day, my siblings and I realized and remember that comic’s dual purpose–to make us laugh, and to warn us of the mortal peril we face should we again complain that our toes, every night, were turning a more gray and ashy shade of blue.

My father is a direct man, someone you can count on to never be passive aggressive, or say one thing and mean another. Sarcasm and figures of speech, while I’m sure he knows what they are, are not part of his repertoire–and that is something to appreciate. He shuns them, and so despite my easy understanding of him and this character trait, I would often try out sarcasm on him, and see if he understood, and if so, whether or not he would play along. These moments of trial always ended in disaster–ten minutes of shouting, followed by my over-exaggerated explanations that I had not, in point of fact, meant that mom was anything like “Mummy Dearest.” But that is a story for another day.

So the Calvin and Hobbes. This strip was one of the lesser ones–it did not even include Hobbes, who I felt really carried the whole series of comics upon his striped and furry shoulders. The strip is a conversation between Calvin and his father, who apparently is the fiercest Patent Attorney this side of the Funnies Section. Calvin complains that it is very cold in his house. His father explains that this is just a matter of opinion, and can be fixed with a better sense of the full-scale of cold weather. And so, Calvin’s father locks him outside the house, in the snow, and makes some remark about how, when he comes back inside, he will have a new-found appreciation for the temperature of his house.  The most sadistic part of this strip was that you never see Calvin reenter the home–you see him banging his un-mittened hands against the front door, screams of shock muffled with tiny squiggles in the margin, as the father calmly and indifferently walks away, towards his living room, probably to read the paper and smoke a pipe. But the message taped to the thermostat was clear: get in line, or get out. As a seven or eight year old, comic strips are perhaps the best way to learn such abrasive lessons.

This was all well and good, and we kept our mouths shut, and doubled-up on woolen socks and blankets. But we hadn’t learned quite enough. My father epiphanied–he understood the power of a simple act of reading, cutting, and affixing. Soon, our house became a repository for all sorts of comic strip lessons. By the doormat, he pasted a Hagar comic to express his wish that unlike pillaging vikings, we wipe our feet. Dilbert sighed at us by the computer. Snoopy did cartwheels near the dog food. Luann was found near our closets, cautioning us on the perils of dressing too provocatively. Garfield warned us not to eat the leftovers he would inevitably take with him to work the next day for lunch. Soon, we would have burned into our memories a picture of dad, hunched over the paper on Sunday mornings, scissors poised and ready for a new lesson. Ziggy, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Cathy, Heathcliff, Marmaduke–they were the ones who raised us, and threatened punishment. Dennis the Menace was our anti-hero, and never did we think for a moment that Mr. Wilson was out of line or too crotchety for his own good.  This was a fine way to grow up–all the things you could or couldn’t do, plotted out and referable in either dialogue bubbles or visuals.

But it didn’t end there.

My mother, one year for Christmas, received a special gift in her stocking from my father. It was a tiny wooden plaque that said : “Today’s Menu: Two Choices: Take It or Leave It.” It was ornately carved, and gave the impression that instead of a ultimatum, a lovely sonnet about the joys of cooking was displayed upon it. Our mother was thrilled. She too had been a victim of this mass comic-strip propaganda (who knows what kind of strips he taped in various places throughout their bedroom). But now, she had been inducted into his special club of domestic message media. They were now a force, a pair to be reckoned with–she hung that tiny plaque above the oven and referred to it, almost daily (but most vehemently on “ham loaf night”). And it didn’t stop there. She found doilies and pillows and picture frames with other not-so-subtle messages, some about keeping a clean house, others about intangibles like love, family ties and “home-sweet-home.” These, although they filled the spiritual and sentimental gaps that the practicality and functionality of the comic strips left out, were in some ways much worse. These told us not only how to act, but why we should be acting the way we did. And most of them didn’t have pictures, or punishments. My mother, instead of telling me to do the right thing, would nod her chin towards the quilt on the rocking chair, or put a coaster with a scripture quote engraved upon it underneath my coffee cup.

As all this was happening, I was studying national propaganda in world history class at the time, and felt like any day, there would be family marches scheduled around our yard, and flags flying from the living room ceiling. I needed some way to fight what I thought was the systematic brainwashing of such overt messaging. But instead, I kept my head down and waited it out until college, and moved into a dorm.

Happy to have my own space, I kept the walls white and free from tacks. My roommates, and everyone on my floor–they went to the poster sale. Soon, Bob Marley, John Belushi and Dave Matthews Band reined supreme. I wanted Calvin and Hobbes back.

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