Tag Archives: Mark Twain

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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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Crummy First Drafts

writing on paperThe problem with settling on a first pass of a statement is that it may reveal that we still don’t know what we think.

There are times when the right medium for addressing another is the written word.  An extended statement provides space to dwell on necessary complexities, make a case with sufficient amplification and evidence, and possibly guide readers towards an action they have been reluctant to take. Good writing is coherent, interesting, and expansive. Whether we’re working on an essay, report or letter; we know when we need to make the most of ideas laid down on the page or its electronic equivalents. This is a ritual for high school students working on the perfect essay to a selective college, the office worker on deadline to finish a report that will be seen by peers and management, or the citizen making a case to reluctant officials or neighbors.

In her useful book for writers, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott declares unequivocally that every writer needs to get past the “shitty first draft.”  It’s her not-so-gentle way to remind budding scribes to take at least several more passes over the prose they  are usually too ready to accept as sufficiently worked out.

Part of the problem with settling on a first draft of any extended statement is that it reflects the likely fact that we aren’t yet clear about what we know or believe. Clarity comes when the theme of a piece begins to reveal itself, sometimes late in the process.

Whitman-pasted-notes-for a poem LOC
Notes of Walt Whitman for a Portion of Leaves of Grass                                   Library of Congress

Occasionally the last summarizing statement of an essay is the very first thing that should be said.  But we don’t know that until we’ve finished the chain of thought that gets us there. This is because we often think inductively from cases to conclusions.  But ideas on the page need a reverse process of deduction.  Major claims usually should come first.  And there’s the rub; we first have to discover them, lest we do the equivalent of showing up at a great party just as it’s winding down.

I suspect I’m not the only one to notice that after a day or so, my first drafts look dead on arrival. They are usually confusing, wordy, and both over-written and underdeveloped.  Having discovered what I really think, successive drafts refine the process.  With time it usually becomes clear that the points I wanted to make can be said with greater economy and clarity.

The left hemisphere of the brain thinks in language, and it’s sometimes only too happy to stay on the case longer than the rest of our mind.

A writer also discovers that the act of revising is enough to set the mind off on its own extended tour of the landscape that is being surveyed. This is a curious phenomenon. It turns out that not all writing happens when a person is formally on task. Better ways to make points force their way into our consciousness even when we move on to other things, like walking or trying to sleep. The left hemisphere of the brain thinks in language, and it’s sometimes only too happy to stay on the case longer than the rest of our mind.

We can also be eternally grateful that word processing makes edits so easy.  A few writers like to work out ideas in longhand, often on a legal pad.  But most have found the advantages of word processing programs that make changes easily, with the added usefulness of spell checkers and a thesaurus. The latter tool can help find not just another word for a feeling or idea, but possibly the best word.

I think I have only known one person who wrote and spoke in more or less “finished” prose. This historian was a phenomenon to listen to: a good scholar, amazingly fluent and a gifted lecturer.  It was a relief when he moved to another state.

Perhaps these modest blog posts look like they are dashed off as more or less complete pieces.  If it were only so.  Most take several weeks to develop, going through a dozen or more alterations. The process expands exponentially for a book.  Many authors I know take years to refine and polish a manuscript.  When it’s done well the finished work of a good writer scans so easily.  And that’s the irony of graceful prose.  It’s like sculpture.  Revision helps it take on a naturalness and clarity that makes it easy to ignore the unnecessary bits that have been carved away.