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!