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The Front Porch Network

Mark Twain on one of the porches he loved

Many American homes built in the late 1800s and later had porches intended to help their owners escape the heat, and—not so incidentally—make it easier to keep in touch with neighbors.

Last month the U.S. Surgeon General issued a health advisory declaring loneliness a “public health epidemic.” There is obscure but useful reference point for this finding. Homes that once facilitated connection with neighbors now often do the reverse.

It was once harder to feel isolated when neighbors were just a few feet away.  Fences, open space, and virtual media have now mostly replaced the humble front porch as a place that could knit neighborhoods together. Its harder to withhold the routine courtesies of acknowledgment when the family next door is just a few feet away.  In an emergency, a neighbor can be a life safer.  But on any given day, even ordinary exchanges can help a person feel anchored to a place.

The Porch Tradition

                                          Elm St. Lambertville, N.J.

Any number of older Americans can remember growing up in towns with housing stock that was built in the first half of the 20th Century and even earlier. Many lived in homes with a front porch. In our older cities we still see plenty of bungalows near the street and  close to nearby neighbors, each with a covered space in the form of a rectangle of maybe eight by fifteen feet: enough for a few chairs and a bench-swing. This extension to a house provided shade and a breeze. It also allowed people to dry off or stay out of the sun as they moved from the sidewalk to the home’s front room.  This architectural feature  is especially an enduring remnant of America’s love of the Victorian style.  A porch was another chance to break up a home’s front walls with decorated brackets, pillars, railings and generous eaves.

From this perch it was also easier to see and be seen. The pre-suburban vernacular of brick or wood-frame homes were usually on small lots and near a neighbor’s own elevated and welcoming porch.  Every block had its own variations: some expansive, some small. They were duplicated in homes of a similar vintage from Washington D.C. to Chicago, from Minneapolis to Memphis.   A balustrated extension of a home was its own version of a party line, where greetings and gossip were easily exchanged. My own humble porch in a newer townhouse honors the customary elevated space with a bead board ceiling, a few circular pillars, and enough room for a few chairs and a side table.  Few can pass by on the nearby sidewalk without getting or giving an acknowledgment.  Remember the gauntlet of  comments Atticus Finch drew as he made his way on foot from his Maycomb, Alabama home down the street to the courthouse?

    Clermont Street, Denver, CO. 

Her own little brick veranda was my grandmother’s preferred spot for reining in exuberant grandkids. On warm summer nights that Clermont Street porch in Denver was a gathering place for family and– maybe if we were lucky–a root beer float. Kids also spilled onto the solid porch railing and small front yard that it overlooked. For a short time I lived in the same style of house before moving to a newer 50’s box shorn of any inviting space in the front.

Duplex with adjacent front doors

The older New Jersey town where I now live is made up of duplex or row houses built mostly in the late 1800s, nearly every one of which still has a covered space within a few feet of a neighbor’s matching version. Few of the houses in the nearby commuter suburbs even bother, shifting all the action to the backyard. In those fat lots neighbors are separated by much more distance and—often—a six-foot-high stockade fence in the backyard: a virtual requirement if you buy a home in California.

Obviously, air conditioning and the vast expanses of newer suburbs made it easier for builders to turn their backs on the street. In addition, an ersatz colonial or modernist home aspired to look self-sufficient and private. Among other influences, Hollywood made each home seem like it should be its own island surrounded by leafy isolation. Many adopted the look of a little manor house, with a few decorative pillars around the front door, but nothing that would be mistaken for a full porch. Indeed, an authentic colonial home built in the 1700s  could be just as austere, all the better to separate the dirty streets of horses and wagon traffic from the front parlor.

Even so, early turn of the Century porches remain plentiful in virtually every corner of the country.  And many buyers of new properties want them back. Few other nations have defined their prototypical homes so clearly than with a covered space open to the street.  It has been a durable enactment of the unique American penchant for lingering and connecting.

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When a Sound Drives us Crazy

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Many of us may thoughtlessly intrude in the sonic space of another, using all kinds of sonic disrupters.  Others could write extended catalogues of sounds that need to be avoided.

For most of us, sound is redemptive. As with  music or a child’s laugh, it often purifies the air of our cluttered world.  But when a particular sound triggers instant and disproportionate aggravation in a person, a strong negative reaction may result. The condition is little more than a nuisance for most of us, but the psychological discomfort of what is sometimes labeled misophonia can be very real.  In theory, almost any sound can be a trigger.  One auditory assault for many were the shrieking strings composer Bernard Hermann built into Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). We can argue about whether it is actually music. But if it was meant to repel, it usually does its job except for the few that have it as a cell phone ring.  Play it and cringe.

Acquiring Sound Sensitivity

Those directly affected by offensive sounds may go to great lengths to avoid them in the future. I suspect this is especially true for sound centric individuals who thrive on auditory content such as music or other aural stimulation.  As organized sound, music is especially sabotaged by the unorganized dross coming from the spaces and streets of some human habitats. To many of us may thoughtlessly intrude in the sonic space of another for little benefit, using devices that test our patience.  As this is written, I’m sheltering from an onslaught of professional lawn mowers who will cut the grass this week so they can do it again to what hasn’t burned out next week.

Misophonia is perhaps best understood as less of a diagnostic category for serious mental illness than a handy label for any noise sensitivity that is seriously disruptive. Industrial engines and lawn mowers, leaf blowers, cement and metal saws, are among the common tools that may send others fleeing an area. But sometimes we are the transmitters of audible noise that, while not so loud, others still find obnoxious. They include obnoxious vocalisms we dread to hear yet again from others. Loud chewing, endless pen-clicking, throat-clearing, or vocal tics can function like aural red flags.

It works out that, in everyday life, the person with certain aural sensitivities is frequently–if accidentally–matched up with a manic producer of them. It can be a signature of a long and ongoing and sometimes testy relationship.

Part of the fun of Neil Simon’s classic play, The Odd Couple (filmed in 1968), is how Felix’s oral tics begin to grate on the laid-back Oscar. Neither of the divorced men sharing an apartment has made a match that is any better than in their failed marriages. And Oscar’s endless throat-clearing provides a ready example. He had an obsessive-compulsive thing going with his sinuses: the kind of annoyance easily recognized by any couple living under the same roof.

We usually don’t set out to annoy another with the aural refuse we spread so freely. Until we do. The intention to annoy is a break from our best selves, usually in the form of passive-aggressive behavior that provokes but can also be denied.  Such sonic mischief may involve letting a barking dog loose as “payback” to a complaining neighbor, or perhaps playing a music system extra loud to answer the circus of noise that never ceases next door.

Audio engineer Brett Houston “solved” the problem of lead feet incessantly moving around in the apartment upstairs by putting loudspeakers in the ceiling cavities that he had inadvertently broken through by pounding on the ceiling once too often. In the hole Houston placed a large speaker between the joists and directly under the neighbor’s floor. He then put microphones at different points along the underside of the same floor, routing the sound through an amplifier with a short delay. So there was karma in every instance of aggravating foot noise that came back amplified and delayed. The neighbors eventually moved.

If there are lessons here, one is simple.  When purchasing any device that creates a noise, seek information on the decibel level it produces when on. OSHA considers noise pollution a significant health risk, and the primary cause of why most teens have the diminished hearing acuity of their grandparents.  If the manufacturer is ashamed of the racket or excluded from having to disclose the decibel level, they will omit the measurement. One example; Honda makes some home generators that are quiet and a bit more expensive.  Most other manufacturers of home units have lower prices but higher sound levels.

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