Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Many Homes for the Holidays

I'm still on the road and will be moving around the South until the Super Bowl. Currently, I am in Tampa, Florida, but before that I was spending time in Atlanta. However, for the last few days I was on Crystal River, just north of where I grew up on the Tampa Bay. I will be posting about another kind of manspace I found there. More later.

Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah to all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making Room for the Man Couch


LaGrange, Georgia. – The way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach, but through a leather recliner. I spent the last two days with my best friend Jessica and her husband James at their home in LaGrange where James took a job a few years ago. Jessica says the house was bachelor pad before she moved in.

Vestigages of that life remain: beer steins and leather couches.

According to one source, a hallmark of the bachelor pad is the lack of attention to detail and cleanliness. The leather couch makes sense, he says. The cushions never have to go to the dry cleaner, which makes cleaning up easy.

A list of men who own leather couches whirls around in my head. Brother-in-laws and rockers among them. In the case of my sister, both she and her spouse decided to put a black leather set in their living room. That was four years ago. Today, she’s wondering why she didn’t recommend them for the den.

This brings me to where the man couch should live. In an earlier post, my architect cousin Beth explained the role of the den, specifically how modern design plans have thwarted this much-coveted man space. Rather than dens or sitting rooms, which were for the ladies, open floor plans force people to share spaces once deemed private for the different sexes.

So what's the big deal? My recent writing on the value of shared spaces suggests that the phasing out of the den is a good thing. It’s not. The best relationships are ones with boundaries, and in the South, where boundaries are often blurred, privacy is at a premium. The man couch in the living room (or what was once the sitting room) looks weird because it is. Where there should be a humidor, there’s a chintz vase in its place.

(Chintz Vase)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Putting the "PUH" in Pecan

As some of you know, I spend a good amount of my life in the kitchen. Today, I received this recipe from Cara Lundqvist, a former high school classmate of mine in Tampa, Florida, who now lives in Finland. (She met the man and moved there!)

A southern home is not complete without its pies. Three gold stars for Cara for keeping up the southern tradition of making pecan (puh-kahn) pie in Finland:


1 cup of dark brown sugar
2/3 cups of maple syrup
1 tablespoon of rum
3 eggs
2 cups of chopped pecans

In a bowl, whip the brown sugar and the syrup together until sugar has dissolved and the consistency is smooth.
Beat in 2 eggs and add 1 tablespoon of rum.
Add pecans and mix around until they get completely covered in the sticky liquid.

6 tablespoons of butter
24 graham crackers
2 eggs
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan or microwave.
Crush 24 graham crackers into fine pieces.
In a bowl, add the butter into the graham cracker mix. Add more butter if needed. Mix should be moist. Stir in 2 egg whites. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon.
Press graham cracker mix into pie plate.
Pre-bake pie crust for 8-10 minutes at 350F.

Pour filling into the pre-baked crust and bake until the pecans are lightly toasted on top. About 20-30 minutes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

No TV Zone

I am hooked on television. I don't own an "idiot box," so whenever I have the chance to park it in front of one, I do. For those of you who think this is strange, I couldn't agree with you more. I haven't owned a TV in years. The reason is simple. I would become an addict.

(Case in point: Last night, I watched 3/4 of the True Blood series. More on that later...)

It's unfortunate, because Barry Hannah, the acclaimed writer and hero to many, once explained the value of the TV for creativity, and especially writing. It's about stories, he said. (In reality, my friend used this argument when I made fun of how much he watched TV. It's not in the watching, it's what you do with it that counts.) Hannah's point is that too much isolation from the rest of the world is never a good thing.

(Barry Hannah)

Clarissa subscribed to cable this fall. This is my friend who grew up in the bright lights and big cities of L.A. and New York. For the first couple of years she lived in Oxford, she watched movies and a few local fuzzy channels she captured with bunny ears. I recall the day I walked into her house and noticed the screen was clear. You have cable, I announced, rather than asked. Then in her usual way of explaining things (yes, my Clarissa really does explain it all), she told me that she needed it.

All this brings me to the "blog." A few weeks ago during my meeting with Charles Wilson, the professor signing off on this project, we discussed the sudden-hit TV series True Blood. I'd heard about it from my sister in Florida who records it and watches at her convenience every week. It's good she told me, but never why. So when Dr. Wilson brought up, I was intrigued. What is he doing watching this show?

(It's like Cheers with Vampires and Sex and Southern Drawls.)

Charles Wilson has his finger on the cultural pulse of the South, that's why. The show, he explained, and I would later find out, was series of dialogues about race, sexuality, and gender in the South. What I noticed, aside from the rich amount of sex and violence, was the depictions of southern homes. Whether it's the home Jason now lives in since he parents died in a flash flood, the home Sookie inhabits by herself since her grandmother was murdered, or the shabby digs of Tara's abode she shares with her alcoholic mother, the theme is this: the south is all about the shared space. Even Will Compton, the vampire Sookie has fallen for, shares his home with transient vampires; and Sam, the owner of the bar Merlotte's, spends more time in there than in his tin can trailer. You get the sense that people move between spaces more freely in the south.

I thinking about this as I plan my own move from Pierce Avenue. Will it be easy? I hope so, and perhaps watching a little TV will help with the process.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's a Man's World, but the Bedroom Don't Mean Nothin' Without a Woman or a Girl

So I spent last weekend in Atlanta. The conversation about gendered spaces came up again, although this time I got feedback from my boyfriend Chris, whose corner of his bedroom I had taken over. He scored points with me saying that the bedroom should be a shared space. Really?, I thought, as I reorganized my oversized suitcase blocking the master bathroom.

Ideally, a home, especially the bedroom, should feel as though it is a shared space for those who live there. Most men will take a back seat to decorating, protesting the occasional stuffed bird or pink walls (or curtains, in my case.) Chris's house, on the other hand, is distinctly his own, which is something I can appreciate. He has a plethora prints, a series of monochrome paintings that line his hallway, and a large abstract drawing that forms the focal point (though it competes with his "tiny" television) of his living room. There are leather couches, ample lighting throughout, and a pairs of glass doors that open to a porch (where both male and female smokers congregate.)

Where we were great at sharing space, aside from the obvious, was in the kitchen. Ordinarily, I am territorial in this space, but with the right person I move in tandem with my partner. The kitchen, I was told, was more or less an eyesore before Chris has his way with it. Now replete with slate and granite, and all new appliances, including a gas range, it's a cozy space, and probably the place where we spent a good amount of my visit. We cooked several meals together for ourselves and friends. There was his chicken, pasta carbonara, and chicken salad, paired with my risotto, steak, and grits.

Back in my tiny Oxford home, I crave the company I had in Atlanta. People complain about sharing a home, but I've realized how much we miss out on when we stir a pot of risotto together. A bed even seems more inviting when it becomes a place to disappear to together.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


"So," I ask my friends Michael, Matt, and Clarissa, "Is the bedroom a female space?" Earlier that day, my professor and I discussed gender and space and after determining the porch male, the kitchen female, and the living areas shared, we were left with the bedroom. 

Michael and Clarissa claimed female while Matt later recanted that it is solely such. His parents, he said, share everything. It's a his and hers house. The conversation ended and the guys proceeded to the porch while the women stayed in the kitchen. 

While they did whatever it is men do on porches (Clarissa posits that the porch is actually a shared space, and while I think she is right, it has only recently become this way), we women cooked and dished on men. 

When Matt and Michael returned, the conversation resumed. Matt pointed out how in the 1980/90s there was a change in Southern architecture that witness the den (male space) become a shared space with the kitchen. A bar often separated the two. I'm curious about the truth of his observation. When did the open floor plan take hold of the south? Was it something that the west coast or more urban areas embraced before we did? Very likely, but I'll get the facts from my architect cousin in Portland and let everyone know. 

For now, our group seemed content to interpret the bedroom as a female space. Then I remembered that my mother, in the last year or so, painted her shared bedroom pink. Not a soft pink, but a garish flamingo color. Light comes through the windows on late afternoon and it becomes for my parents what Dr. Charles Wilson calls "a sanctuary." And perhaps he's right. As I write, I am in my sanctuary. A bed with a heated blanket. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eat Like a Southerner

(Did someone just die, or are the Rebels playing?)

I finished the article on Helene DeFrance's cookbook/entertainment guide the other night. Reading it was rather timely considering I've been in entertaining mode for most of November. This month there was dinner with friends every weekend. There was Alysson and two other law clerks from Jackson (toast points with caramelized onion and Parmesan cheese, rosemary pecans, and the ubiquitous cheese plate), a baked ziti dinner (a la Marcella Hazan) with Alysson, Nathan and Scott Barretta, and most recently, a shared meal with Scott (a regular) and my friend Avon who spent the last year in France learning about food at Rose Bakery in Paris. The menu was simple: orrecichette with a bordelaise New Orleans-style sauce and salad. This weekend, I'll be cooking remotely in Atlanta.

(The Maryland Rebels and their pan-fried chicken.)

Entertaining is one thing southerners have down pat. Witness the Grove. Aside from weddings, I've never seen such decadent and decided planning of meals. What happens in the Grove has garnered the attention of national print in Saveur among other publications. Recently, I was to meet some editors there from Gourmet who were considering doing a story on the spectacle. A spectacle it is. When my brothers arrive next week from Florida, I intend on sharing this little piece of culinary heaven with them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the Plate

What fortuitous timing. Yesterday, during a culture meeting for the company I work for, I was asked to make our new office "pretty." The enthusiasm for my selection stemmed from the knowledge that I whipped Pierce Avenue into shape in under a month. (The key to getting anything done is setting a deadline, and in the case of my new home, I set the date for a party.)

The company's new location will be at the corner of Van Buren and S. 9th, just across the street from St. Peter's Episcopal Church. The highlight of the place is not its "decaying elegance," though there is certainly something to be said of it, but its porch. I find it fitting that a company, which has positioned itself as helping businesses with their identity, would work out of a place reminiscent of a home. Homes are incubators of our identities.


(Signing with Helen DeFrance on November 28 at Square Books.)

Bess Currence Reed, formerly of Regal Literary out of NYC (and now all things BBB with her husband and chef, John Currence) just asked me to write about Helen DeFrance's forthcoming cookbook At Home Cafe: Gatherings for Family and Friends. I'll be interviewing Helen for an article that will tie-in with her event in Oxford on November 28.

Homekeeping Tip #1

(Alysson poised to pour.)

This in from Alysson Mills who refers to my home as "Mary's Jewelbox":

Here are two websites that you should be checking daily --

DISCLAIMER: Both sites provide sneak peaks of homes capable of producing house envy in the viewer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the Menu: Southern Kitchens

(Tasting the menu at Ravine.)

No discussion of the southern home is complete without addressing the bedroom (reading: Suzi Parker's Sex in the South; watching: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Before I explore that space, however, this week I'll be posting on the southern kitchen and the places we entertain.

Living in Oxford, Miss., creates more than a few examples for this conversation. Home of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South, as well as The Grove, a place on the campus of the University of Mississippi that becomes the picnic grounds for those attending the football games most weekends in the fall, Oxford is not short on places to eat. There are also a few restaurants on the outskirts of town, whose cozy settings coupled with a BYOB policy, create an at-home dining experience.

I'll be bombarding the blog with posts on all of these things, in addition to a write up of Julia Reed's latest books on home and entertaining, and my own ruminations on what it means to feed people. How did I become a hostess? There's a story there, I promise.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

In Which Mary Confesses to Being a Snoop

I have a confession. I like to know what people keep in their drawers and closets. Apparently, so do other people. As I finished packing my suitcase last weekend, Michael Hearst, one of my house guests, said something along the lines of, "Looking forward to going through your stuff." Hours earlier, I hid my journal and other unmentionables, but only for the sake of politeness. I laughed him off.

The subject came up initially at breakfast. Another person in the entourage staying at my house confessed to doing the same thing as a kid. I'm convinced that some of us have carried the habit into adulthood out of a yearning to "know" the other. While I can't remember the last time I employed my finely tuned snooping skills (and you wonder what we learn in grad school, hah!), my house provides the curious with a cadre of places to find things. One such thing is a long, narrow, wooden box with a series of small drawers. Within each of them are at least one of the following: shells, keys, sea sponges, feathers, prayers written on little pieces of paper, and marbles. Those are just the things I can publicly admit to hiding.

Why do we hide things that don't necessarily need to be veiled? Sometimes I think it is to simply be surprised by that which we possess, but have forgotten.

If the boys dug through any of my drawers, I wouldn't know. But I did receive this video that gives me at least a vague idea of what went on while I was away.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Guest House

(Can I?, Andrew Blanchard)

This weekend, I hit the road for Nashville and Asheville, then Spartanburg, South Carolina on Sunday to see my friends Drew and Liz Blanchard. While I am gone, the Southern Foodways Association kicks off its 11th symposium where writers, historians, and the curious converge this year to talk about southern beverages. (Don't worry, Blueprint will be deconstruction the kitchen next week.)

I mention this only because in my absence, some of the conference's guests will be staying at my house. I offered chez Mary to Michael Hearst, member of One Ring Zero, a Brooklyn-based band. SFA conference organizer, John T. Edge, asked them to come down and play some of their songs, which are based on chefs' recipes, at one of the events. I'm glad I'll get to catch some of this before I leave on Thacker Mountain Radio and later at Proud Larry's, a local music venue.

I give Michael the key to my heart-home (because that is how I feel about my space these days) Friday morning. Then I'm off to a wedding for the first leg of the trip (after a night in Nashville) and head over to South Carolina. Some will remember my introduction of Andrew Blanchard last month when I made false promises about posting an interview with him. Well, in addition to eating vegetarian food and basking in the company of good South Carolinians, I intend on sitting down with Drew (hopefully on his back porch) to make things right.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Corner of the Universe

(The main bath of House #6, which I shared with two guys. It wasn't so bad.)

The only place I feel that I am myself is in the shower, I once told a friend. He laughed, and then I realized what I had said. How people behave in their homes versus in public spaces is the subject of many biographies that line bookstore shelves. It’s nothing new. “Our house,” writes Gaston Bachelard, “is our corner of the universe.” On our front porches, we may play a role of some kind – concerned/nosy/noisy neighbor – but once we cross over the threshold of our houses, we can exist as we wish.

Even though I rent the place I live in, I still consider it a home. Owning the property is not the key. What matters is owning the idea of it as a home. Few people in New York City and other urban centers possess a mortgage, yet despite this fact, they’ve made where they dwell their own. My corner of the universe has been described as happy, cozy, warm. Quite different adjectives have been used to describe me in public places. “You’re cold,” one ex-boyfriend complained. He didn’t realize the “chill” was just a costume. People who know me, and more importantly, those who have sat at my table, would laugh at the thought of me as The Ice Queen.

So, if homes can affect who we are and our perspective of life, why do we spend so much time trying to make them look like the austere places we see in magazines (devoid of humanity and life) and invest little energy in their maintenance?

Monday, October 13, 2008

I'm a Porch Sitter. Are You?

(The porch I share with my neighbor Andrew.)

I've been reading Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon's Swinging in Place. It explores the porch not just as a "place" (governed by society), but also a "space" (created by the individual).

Donlon addresses issues of race and class, but she also identifies familial and romantic relationships that develop underneath porches' haint-blue ceilings. "The porch is a powerfully charged 'place' integral to the everyday lives of Southerners. It is a site where people can gain or loose power," Donlon writes. It is also a liminal "space," a threshold through which to pass from the public to the private.

During my weekend in Nashville, I took note of porches. They are more prevalent in west Nashville than here in Oxford, Mississippi. I even had dinner and breakfast on the back porch of my friend's house. Perhaps others were also in their back yards. Although the weather befit porch sitting, I saw few people enjoying their front porches. Has the porch become a status quo as just another over-decorated space? (They are the new must-have, just do a search on New Urbanism.) Has it lost is practicality in an air-conditioned South?

Donlon cites Raymond Arsenault. He laments that "[some southerners] will argue that the South is going to hell, not in a hand-basket, but in an air-conditioned Chevy." Meaning, with the prevalence of air-conditioning in southern homes today, more people retreat indoors than they did in the past. ( In 1997, the Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Surveys reported that 72.5% of Southern households had some form of A/C unit compared to 63% of households in the Northeast.)

The porch facilitates neighborly communication. With more southerners choosing the hum of the artificial air to a cool evening breeze, there is less conversation. "Oratory is our heritage", Faukner reminds us. When southerners cease to talk, the foundation of the community is fractured.

If you’re considering doing something for the community, add a porch. And if you already have one, use it.

All Hail the Porch

A month ago, I created the Facebook group Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1402. I've been thinking about porches in the context of community. Beside my own, my favorite porch is in Charleston, SC. It belongs to David and Carol Rawle. David is the marketing genius behind the Piggly Wiggly emporium and Carol is a fire-eating Ford model turned owner of Harry Barker, an online boutique for all things canine. I shared Thanksgiving dinner with them on this porch, which opened into a sprawling garden.

Upstairs, there was another porch. This one was the kind you see of when you think of a traditional porch. It has a white railing, long wooden floor boards, and a ceiling painted haint blue. My friend's Matt and Ted Lee shot the cover for their cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook ,on it. The book won the Beard Award in 2007. Though porches were thought be out of fashion by the 1990s, once again they're in the spotlight. (New Urbanism has brought the porch back in vogue in places like Seaside, Florida, where those without porches experience "porch-envy.")

I asked members of the PPS Union to submit photos of their favorite porches. Chris Johnson, from Alabama, was the first to respond with this:

"My friends at a family cabin outside of Tuscaloosa. This is after a slumber party. And no, we didn't sleep on the porch, though that would have been nice. Porches make people happy!"

This came from Cristen Hemmins. Her porch in Oxford, Mississippi:

Although she did not submit a picture of her porch -- likely because she currently resides in Chicago -- Kate Talyor Battle ponders:

"What are your thoughts on outdoor kitchens? My dad changed his garage into a kitchen, fully equipped with fishing poll racks, a gun closet, and automotive supplies, neatly stored next to gallons of peanut oil, deep fryers, and a full kitchen,as well as an entire wall dedicated to deer antlers, and another wall featuring his days of dirt-track racing. (I guess we're more of a mudroom family than a porch sitter family, but my mom always loved singing that song to me from the end of The Jerk when I was a little kid, and that was definitely a porch song.)"

She brings up a good point: The creation of a porch space when a traditional one is not an option. Probably the most interesting of that variety comes from Daniel Morrow, who lives up the road from me.

"How about my upstairs porch?" he writes.

Friday, October 10, 2008

She Moves

A few months ago, a favorite publisher of mine sent me It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, a part-travelogue, part-historiography by Paste contributing editor Amanda Petrusich. Her book explores these questions:

"Where lies the boundary between meaning and sentiment? Between memory and nostalgia? America and Americana? What is and what was? Does it move?"

Traveling defines home (place) we soon find out.

In It Still Moves, Petrusich visits Southern sites steeped in music and explores their pasts. In one chapter, in particular, Petrusich steps away from music to talk about Graceland (as a place), and in doing so, she explores the sentiment we derive from the places we call home.

It was a pleasing thing to sit in the audience of the show I produce and listen to Petrusich read from the chapter, rightly towards the beginning of the book, 'I'm Going to Graceland.' When I finished reading that section, I rushed through the rest of It Still Moves and popped it in the mail to a friend who was presently moving from L.A. to Nashville. On a card I tucked inside the book's cover I wrote: You'll need this.

Petrusich connects her readers to the places she visits, but she also helps us rediscover and reconsider them. I went to Graceland, well, the outskirts anyway, a few months ago for the first time. I recall the eeriness of the moment. My friend and I meandering around in the strip of stores across the street from Elvis's home. I wouldn't do this in the suburb I grew up in Florida, but here it was O.K. In the stores, cardboard cutout Elvises stood guard among plates, posters (yes, velvet ones), figurines, and my personal favorite -- stained glass Elvises.

Elvis liked kitsch. I stood between a museum quality collection of it and what represented the next generation now for sale across the street from his home. Before we have Petrusich as our guide, we see Graceland as destination (a joke, a pilgrimage, an oddity), but as she moves throughout the house, we encounter it as a home. The table setting, appliances in the kitchen, even a flower arrangement, are not missed from her eyes. For the first time, I thought of the tourist attraction I rolled my eyes at every time I passed it on I-55 as a place where people once lived.

It Still Moves is decidedly a book about music, especially the Southern variety, but themes of space and place course as strong throughout its pages.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Places of Power

In the 1820s, the south was under siege. As a result, the home became a place where authority could be defined. In Southern architecture, classical revivalism grew in popularity, which was a nod to Thomas Jefferson who deemed it the “National” style. There was eventually a shift to Gothic architecture after the Civil War, but because of the region's depleted economic status, it would come much later than in other parts of the country. Until then, clinging to a style which Southerners identified with as their own, reinforced their “place” and, and more importantly, a sense of power.

The dining room in homes also figures prominently in hierarchies of power. The person who was once the big landowner was to nurture the community by inviting people of different socio-economical backgrounds to their table. Hal Crowther writes in this year’s home edition of the Oxford American, “I’m old enough to remember when the bosses house on the hill, valued in awe and whisper at a hundred thousand dollars, occupied the pinnacle of envy.”*

I also live in a house on a great big hill, but alas, I don’t own the property. Being the house on the highest point in the neighborhood, I have used the front side to display a rather large tarp emblazoned with the word “Obamarama”. Yes, it yells, "I support Barack Obama." Here is yet another example of a home as a place of power. It's garnered some ugly looks. In a move that I can only read as defiant, some random person, probably the neighbor across from me who has to look at my proclamation, put a sign in my yard in support of the Republican presidential candidate. Interestly, the next day McCain’s sign was plucked from my lawn (I didn't do it, I swear), but my sign, my coat of arms, still hangs, flapping in the wind.

*Something to consider next time your invited to that dinner party!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Making Room for Writers

The Guardian has been doing a series on writers' rooms since 2007. The most recent essay features Jonthan Bate, but there are others of note: Roald Dahl, Martin Amis, Penelope Lively. For a country known for naming their houses, these "portraits where authors create" reaffirms our need for a hospitable home, whether we work in or out of them. For those who aren't lucky enough (the grass is always greener) to work from home consider Estée Lauder's philosophy on the work place: "You spend so much time in the office, you might as well make it like a home."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Deep Clean

I've been accused of being overly organized. That's why I loose things sometimes. However what I have never been accused of -- not at least since I was a teenager -- is having a dirty house. Messy is one thing (a state of being that one friend says is evidence of a productive person), but filth is another.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a family of six kids. While I would have to hunt for the homework mom moved off the kitchen table in a mess of book bags, papers, and other ephemera of youth, our home was always clean. Last week, I spent a few days before my friend's visit doing what my friend Clarissa, who is doing the same thing at her place in anticipation of her dad's arrival, dubbed the "deep clean." It is usually is a day-long, though sometimes longer, affair in which afterwards the house resembles something out of a catalog.

I am thinking about this a lot lately with the arrival of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. In addition to the town rolling out the red carpet, they've brought out the vacuum. While Oxford is one of the more cleaner places I lived, it's especially tidy this week. A clean house, like a clean town makes everyone feel good.

Just one more reason to wash that dish...

Monday, September 22, 2008

In the Pink

A house of this size can be remade in a short period of time. I moved in the middle of August and set to work on reinventing my space with a September 20 deadline in mind. Of course, the interior of a house is alive as much as its structure, so I anticipate some changes over the next year. For now, here she is.

Open House

When, if after moving into a new place you need a little fire to quickly get things in order, throw a housewarming party. It worked for me anyway. Not only did I host a party last Friday, but I welcomed my first out-of-town guest, a friend from Alabama. (So there was even more added pressure to find a place for my 50th pair of shoes.)

According to an etymological website, the origin of the word housewarming comes from the word huswermynge, first mentioned in an English monastic record from about 1150. Back then, it literally meant "heating a house." In 1577 it was believed to be first used metaphorically: "The Shomakers [shoe makers] of London, having builded a newe Hall, made a royall feast for theire frends, which they call their howse warming"

There was no royal feast at Pierce Avenue, just some kitsch food and a handful of friends. A recovering-addict of the dinner party (for which I have little time these days), it took a minute for me to get used to people in my house. Then I remembered how nice it was to hear the person across from me talking. Apparently, the gathering of people in homes is more historical than we realize. Before there were bars, people congregated at the homes of their friends to socialize, not just to party. Homes were the not the private places they represent today. The significance of an invitation into someone's home is a relatively new phenomenon; in the past, it was the only way to conduct business or simply find out about the weather.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Homework with Jack Pendarvis

Jack Pendarvis lives a block over from me. While I probably wouldn't knock on his door to borrow some sugar, I still consider him a neighbor because we live near each other and we socially interact.*

Jack is a writer, in fact, a very good one. He spent a lot of time at home writing his recent novel Awesome, as well as his previous collections of short stories, Your Body Is Changing and The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. I'm not doing anything new by interviewing Jack about home. In the last two decades at least three books have been written about writers and their homes. Last year, there was even a fictional book by Brock Clarke (The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England) that juxtaposed the words writer and home in its title. Writers worked from home long before there was such a thing as telecommuting.

So why interview another writer? It's possible that our idea of home changes over time. What meant one thing to Faulkner, may mean another to Jack.

MW: Where is "home" for you?
JP: Wherever Theresa is. And some cats.

MW: People seem to exist via their computers. Do you think the idea of
home is over-rated these days?
JP: Homes are nice. I doubt anyone who doesn't have one would say they're overrated!

MW: While you were a John Grisham Visiting Writer last year you lived in the Seymour Lawrence house, which is just down the street from Faulkner's house at Rowan Oak. What was it like living there? You mentioned to me once before that you were relieved to get everything out of storage.
JP: It's strange living in someone else's house. But it's fun going through someone else's stuff!

MW: What do you think makes a home "southern"? Or, is there even such a thing?
JP: I have never been big on this whole "Southern" thing - you know, the thing you have to put in quotation marks. I am Southern. I've always lived here. There are many Southern things I love - particularly some music and some books - but I don't love them BECAUSE they're Southern. I guess what makes our home Southern is all the chicken-on-a-stick bags that drunken college students toss into our yard every night on their way home from somewhere.

MW: Is there something unusual in your household that will never see the light of day at a yard sale?
JP: I like going to yard sales but I'm disappointed if there are no books. Enraged, even! Where are the books??? I don't think I'd ever like to participate in a yard sale on the other end of it, though. I guess I'm a big old hypocrite! It's hard for me to throw things out. When Theresa and I first lived in the same place, she cleaned out a drawer and found candy bar wrappers for candy bars that didn't even exist anymore, that's how old these candy bar wrappers were. And this was after I had told her that I wasn't going to clean out the drawer because I "only save important things."

MW: And finally, can you describe a favorite room in your house?
JP: We bought what we thought of as a dining room table but at some point we realized that it was the tiniest table ever made. It sort of precludes the possibility of a dinner party. But we have grown to love the little table! It sits in the middle of a room and the room echoes because the tiny table does not absorb sound, I guess. I'm no physicist! Well, it looks nice sitting there all tiny. And there are bookshelves looming and some nice paintings in that room, including a slightly ominous but finally comforting "Ghost Dog" by Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Cats like to sit in that room and look out of windows. All in all, a pleasant room.



I wonder what my neighbor, Jack Pendarvis, thinks about home?

There's No Place Like Home

According to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy, sociologists have found that people have ten times as many interactions with others at a farmer's market compared to interactions at the supermarket. Oxford is a little different. It's a small town, so I can count on running into at least two people I know at the grocery store. Last weekend, while out at the Taylor Farmer's Market I spoke with more than ten people, and I not just to ask the price of canned okra or fried peach pies.

Just a short walk west things were quieter. There, beside an idyllic community event, was an empty housing development. At a distance, the houses provided an almost Hollywood backdrop for the farmer's market. It called to mind The Truman Show, but it also reminded me of Celebration, Florida, the Disney "imagineered" town near Mickey Mouse HQ. When I started walking around the neighborhood, the eeriness lingered. No one seemed to be living there. Many people were against the development from the start. Finally realized, it's an unusual sight in the center of a quaint, quiet town that's in the middle of nowhere.

How is it that this has happened in the community of Taylor? At breakfast the next day, I heard some theories from a local resident, but since this isn't a blog proffering ill will, I'll leave them out. What I can say -- and what appears to be the heart of the matter -- is that a community's identity has been threatened. Seeing these homes recalled the part in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's house lands in Oz. Like that house, they don't fit the scene.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Real Blueprint?

This morning I am off to Taylor, Mississippi, to check out the town's much-buzzed about farmer's market. What's also luring me to the community is Southern Living Magazine's recent selection of a home design in a development there as an "Idea House." What exactly does that mean? What do they look like? I'll post some pictures so those of us in the South can get a clue on how we are supposed to be living.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dabbling with Drew

I just got off the phone with printmaker, Andrew Blanchard. He was telling me about his new work, which features homes in his nearby Spartanburg, SC. I've been a fan of Blanchard's work since I met him when I was an undergraduate studying printmaking at the University of Mississippi. He was finishing his MFA in Printmaking. Since then, I've amassed a nice collection of his prints, which fill the walls of my living room/office and kitchen. Each print documents transition in his life: from new love to marriage, then a move to Chicago, and finally, setting up home.

Next week, I'll interview Blanchard about one of the prints he recently finished...

What are you clinging to?

A poet friend gave me a copy of The Poetics of Space by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. It's subtitle "The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Spaces" made me add it to my reading list. Far from Martha Stewart's Living, it can be a dense read at times, but worth it all the same. Although Bachelard does not address homes in a regional setting, through exploration of space, he creates a model for understanding the role of homes in our lives. You need this foundation to de-construct Southern spaces.

Bachelard asserts that "...[T]he house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme."

Exhibit A: Pierce Avenue, Home #10

My childhood room was mauve. I chose it mostly because I liked the way the word pressed through my lips. G.I. Joes formed my coterie of playmates, not Barbies.

Later, in my teen years, I went to the dark side and painted my room mid-night blue. The house at Pierce Avenue is the first place since then where I applied paint (in a color other than white) to the walls. Is painting the interior of my house pink a return to my youth -- a time I especially would have considered my Innocence?

Bachelard would say yes. He would also say that if we look at the artifacts in our homes, we will find vestiges of the past. In my own home there are several startling examples evoking the past. A chandelier above my dining table (a modern, and inexpensive, Ikea version) recalls the one that hung defunct in the dusty corner of my parents bedroom, vintage cameras speak of my father who dabbled as an amateur photographer, Japanese tschochkies and a tea service mimic the ones I played with that my father brought home from Asia; and there are other more subtle things, such as the way I prefer the lighting in my home: from corner lamps, not overhead.

In the same way Southern homes, oftentimes considered "traditional" with their contents that allude to another period of time, are reclaiming -- or perhaps clinging -- to the past. What are you clinging to?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Redefining the Home

What is a “home”?

Home and house are not interchangeable words. The words “origin,” “center,” “cared for,” “comfortable,” and “relaxed” are among the terms used to define the term home. All of these words convey a mental state of being, rather than one that is physical. The definition of house corresponds to a particular kind of structure. To demonstrate the best use of both words: One can make a home in a house. (One could also make their home in their car, office, or perhaps even the street, but as I will argue later, a home must be a place where one is capable of feeling comfort, and it is unlikely that the aforementioned dwellings can offer such a thing.)

With the paint dried on my walls and my boxes unpacked, I am beginning to feel like I have a home. Before I moved in, 1402 Pierce was my friend Alysson’s house, and though she has a keen sense of style, few vestiges of her remain. She left me her mattress (as a favor), a pair of red carved wood wall shelves, and a 1960s high-seated red chair. I kept the bedroom blue, but added pink to the walls in bathroom, and a shade of celadon to the kitchen. Sometimes I think Allyson is going to appear with a tray of macaroons, like the ones she made last spring, and offer me some. I wonder when her presence will go away, or if it ever will.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Winch & a Prayer

Strep throat and a hurricane were not going to keep this move from happening, but what about a hitch stuck in the road?

9:15 A - Marcus, a younger sibling of a friend and my hired hand for the morning witnessed the interview with a truck rental agent that involved going through a checklist of driving procedures (standard) and a reminder that my 16' truck did not come equipped with a make-up mirror (not so standard.)

9:45 A - Several Jane Hancocks later, the rental agent gave me permission to hit the streets.

10:00 A - We arrived at the place where a few of my prized possessions (20 cases of books; mix-matched china; writing desk) have been stashed since July 15.

11:30 A - My new house on Pierce Avenue is on a hill. In a large truck, such as the one I was driving, I thought I could clear the incline of the driveway alongside the house. I could not.

12:00 P - Even 2x4s nailed together and propped under the truck's rear tire by two roofers at another house down the street could budge the hitch, now encrusted with black concrete. A final attempt by the roofers to dislodge the knob involved violent shaking the rear of the vehicle. You guessed, it did not work.

1:30 P - I forgot to eat in the morning and I started seeing stars. Marcus went for replenishment.

2:00 A - A KA frat guy drives by in his pick up. He asks if we need help. Both of us nod. Ill get my winch, he says, and drives off. (At this point two other people said they would help, so I thought he was just being polite. Although further consideration in the heat made me wonder why anyone offering to help, only not to help, is considered "being polite.")

2:30 A - The winch and two other guys arrive. We crank both engines and the truck is rolling. We open the truck and nothing is broken inside. I make a note to not complain about frat guys ever again.

An hour later, Marcus and I have successfully unloaded everything in the house. We return the truck -- much later than anticipated -- but I blame the heat. I forget to mention the hitch episode. I seems like the guys has enough stories about inept girls anyway.