I grew up in a house without books. Oh, sure, we had a few books scattered around here and there. I distinctly remember my mother buying and reading all of those V.C. Andrews horror novels with the weird kids and flowers on the covers. And we must have had a few classics on the shelf, leftovers from school assignments or books obtained from a friend of the family or books that just seemed to be there for one reason or another. But for the most part my home was a home of magazines and television.
There’s an old saying: “a house without books is like a house without windows.” And while I understand its meaning, my house actually had a lot of windows. The windows in my bedroom that overlooked one of my town’s main roads and the roof of the store where I would later drink way too much vodka. The windows in the living room where we placed red electric candles every Christmas. The window in the kitchen that overlooked the yard of the truly insane hag who lived next door (every night she would swear at us from the other side of the wall). And, of course, the giant window on the floor that showed me the world.
I’m speaking, of course, about our television set.
I still remember that set, not our first but the first that made an impression on me. It was a giant Magnavox, with wood panelling and a couple of cubby holes to keep things in. It was an actual piece of furniture that touched the ground. It was almost as big as the sofa. We got it when I was in second grade, around 1972. If you saw me running home from school that day, almost hyperventilating from excitement, you would have sworn that some school bully was chasing me with a flamethrower.
I’ve always had a dual personality. I’m constantly in a battle with myself (hey, I’m a Gemini). Part of me wants to be the world-weary freelance writer, aloof, always on the go, swinging in on a chandelier to save the day with my typewriter. No bosses, no time clocks. No time for staff meetings or Dilbert-like office politics. The other part of me desperatly wants to be Ward Cleaver, with a solid home, a wife, the two kids, the wacky neighbors, a lawn, and health benefits. All writers know that those two worlds can never exist together.
Then I met Rob Petrie. Well, if you define “met” as in “watched every single episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show approximately 75 times.” He had it all! He had style and was quick-witted and funny and wrote for a hit TV variety show in this big city called New York, a world of advertising and martinis and skyscrapers. But after work, he had a house. In the suburbs! New Rochelle, to be exact. 148 Bonnie Meadow Road. He had the beautiful wife, the cute son, the milkman, the neighbors who were also best friends. Jerry borrowed power tools from Rob and Millie swapped recipes with Laura. My God. That’s what I want. How do I get that?
I spent entire days at the library, devouring every single science fiction and mystery on the shelf. I would get a pile of books and sit there in the big chair and just get lost. I didn’t care if it was nice out or what was going on. I just wanted to read and learn how to write. In school, I was lucky enough to have some great English teachers that recognized my love of reading and really pushed me into writing. Miss Pszenny, Miss Githens, Miss Coleman, Mr. Breitenstein. I sometimes wonder where they are now. I want to say to them, “hey, look! I’m still writing! Thanks for the push!”
So, I write because I love to read. I write because I want to leave something behind when I go (and I can’t draw or sing). I write because it keeps me connected to everything and everyone else. Not just the people around me but the people I write and read about. I write because writing explains the world, or invents new worlds that have to be explained. I write because it sure as hell beats working for a living.
But mostly, I write because Rob Petrie did. And because I want to be married to Mary Tyler Moore.
(This originally appeared in the first issue of Professor Barnhardt’s Journal in 2002.)