Friday, May 20, 2011

On the Front Porch

Why don't people use front porches anymore?

In my hometown, all the old houses, built around the turn of the century, have impressive, wraparound front porches. They have rickety wooden swings that creak under the strain of warm butts and cool summer breezes. These porches bear ornate, spindly banisters and tired, wooden soffits.

A Porch is Porch. Or is it?
But if you look at the majority of homes built in the last 50+ years, rarely will you find a home with a front porch. Instead, I will guarantee that you'll find a back porch, deck, or patio. A barbeque, maybe even a swimming pool, or a trampoline.

What has led to this shift from anterior to posterior in our homes? The porch is a symbol of community, a gathering place for the family and friends. Before the era of Central Air and television, this was the place to go for recreation and relaxation, and it's move from front to back, in my perception, is telling of a greater shift in social behavior.

Vehicular Homicide

Scott Cook, in a fairly thorough exploration of the front porch, attributes the decline in part to the proliferation of vehicles. Noisy streets and noxious fumes driving people inside or behind security fences.

Check out his theories on the evolution of the front porch. Some interesting ideas are explored.

He also brings up the idea of air conditioning as a possible catalyst.The porch used to provide reprieve from the sweltering heat of the home. Windows ventilated to limited success, so often the only escape from the afternoon heat was the breeze and shade of your front porch.

Growing up in a non-air conditioned house in Southeast Iowa, I know this technique well. As teenagers, my sister and I would even sleep on our porch on unbearable summer nights. There was no fear of noise or intruder. Only the incessant mosquitoes and the din of cicadas in the distance.

The Red Scare: Commies on the Porch Swing

Neighbors used to be more than the humans who inhabited the adjacent buildings. They used to be the people you trusted with your kids, the folks you invited to dinner, and the person you asked for a cup of sugar or gallon of gas. But something shifted, seemingly in the 50's and 60's, that made people leery of their neighbors.

Swing Low, Sweet Porch Swing
Was it McCarthy and his communist witch hunt that made everyone afraid of what their neighbors did behind closed doors?

Was it the rise of technology that drew people closer to loved ones across the country and, eventually, across the globe, that made folks less reliant on the company of those down the street?

Was it the efficiency and modernization of goods and services that created a greater ability to be self-sufficient and therefore without the need to visit a neighbor for a favor?

It's hard to say. I think there may be validity in all these ideas, and some combination may be true. It'd be interesting to hear from people who've lived through this shift for some perspective.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What I Learned in that Seemingly Meaningless Job - Get Outa Bed!

I've held plenty of positions at jobs that I knew were not going to be my career. Let's recap:

Starbucks Barista
Paper Boy

In all of these, as well as others, I've loved and loathed certain elements of the job. The commute, the working conditions, the boss, the heat, the cold. But I've also tried to learn something from each as well. As I see it, if you don't learn from the experiences you've had, the job was a waste of your time.

I was thinking about the concept of life lessons this morning. I woke up around 6am, and rather than throw my phone and curl back up in my warm bed, I actually got out of bed. I showered, shaved, dressed leisurely, and even had time to read a book and get some work done on this blog. All before I got to my 8am meeting.

As I was doing this, I realized that I am able to get up at ridiculous hours because of my exhausting stint at Starbucks. As an opener, I was generally at work by 4:30am, half consciously cranking out lattes and quaffing espresso like shots of whiskey. Not an advisable method of existence for any prolonged period of time, but during that time in my life, my productivity was through the roof!

The take away is this:

Get up early, produce your craft, whether it be knitting or music, and start your day feeling as if you accomplished something!

My friend Brian and I often discuss the benefits of working early in the morning. He once said something to the affect of,

"The best things are accomplished before the day starts. It's those who get up early or stay up late who make things happen."

I may have butchered my wise friends sentiments, but you get the gist.

Practicing Preachers

So this is all fine and dandy, but how do you convince yourself of this when it is 6am and you are faced with the Bed vs. Brain dilemma?

I tried writing a note on my phone. It read,

"Get up. Go for a run. Eat breakfast. Do laundry. Read. Blog. Podcast. DO SOMETHING!"

That has worked about a third of the time.

I've taken advice from the guys at Radiolab and attempted to combat the immediate gratification of going back to sleep. My half conscious brain rages,

"You'll feel so good if you get up and accomplish something!"

"You've need to get a blog posted today."

"Work out, lazy ass."

This has also had a limited affect. Jad and Robert, in an episode entitled "Help!" argue that you have to replace your weakness with an immediate gratification. Something that will be so jarring that it will overwhelm your desire to play it safe.

"If you don't get up, RIGHT NOW, I (you) will give $100 to the next drunk hobo you see!"

Nothing against drunk hobos, but I don't have a hundred bucks to throw around like that. I'll try it tomorrow and let you know how it works.

It's Hot, but Not Monotonous

Earlier this week, as my wife and I took a stroll through our neighborhood in an attempt to escape the humidity of our poorly-ventilated apartment, our discussion wandered to talk of the trip we took last summer to Paris. It was hot.

Everywhere we went, people were apologizing, saying that this was the most unseasonably hot weather that Paris had seen in decades. And we got to experience it in all its sweaty, humid, un-air conditioned glory.

So as we walked through the cool residential streets near our apartment, we reflected back on that trip. Despite the heat, I will say that the trip was amazing. Melting in Paris is still better than relaxing in Iowa (no offense Iowa). So I went back to the archives and pulled out this footage of one of the more unique moments in our trip.

When in Paris, Watch out for Glass Boxes

Not only was it awesome to see a MIME IN PARIS, but this guy was pretty talented. To bad he got shut down by the man.

We need more street performers in the USA. Especially mimes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hotter than Blazes

My car thermometer read ninety three degrees as I turned the key in the ignition this afternoon. The thick air in the vehicle was swirled with hot jet-streams that pushed stale atmosphere through the anxious vents.

Summer has arrived in the Midwest.

I don't like to complain about the weather. As a native Iowan, I see it as a badge of honor to weather the atmospheric bi-polarity of our region.

But as an Iowan, I also have an inherent tendency to discuss the weather with people I meet. My wife hates it. I guess it comes from my agrarian heritage, where weather patterns affect your livelihood.

So when I stopped by the Downtown Grocery for a mid-afternoon refreshment today, made small talk with the polite Middle Eastern man who held the door for me.

The gentleman works at the store, and I've chatted with him many times as I stop in to grab a candy bar or Arnold Palmer Tallboy. As he followed me into the dingy convenience store, I joked,

Cool and Refreshing
"You open doors for your customers now too? Should I tip for that?"

"Oh no! I was just finishing my cigarette."

I wiped my brow and, in iconic Iowan fashion, retorted,

"It's almost hot enough to give up that habit, I'd say."

He just smiled and said,

"This is nothing! Try smoking in one hundred twenty degrees!"

Upon further inquiry, I learned that this gentleman was born in Dubai.

"The winters in Dubai are as the spring here - sixty, seventy degrees. Two, three, four o'clock, you cannot even leave your house. It is too hot!"

So to all those who are swooning at this unseasonably warm weather, take it from a man who has become thick skinned toward these Iowa summers.

In a way, my Downtown Grocery acquaintance has assimilated well to the rough Iowa approach to atmosphere. Shrug off the extreme weather, as it is always more intolerable somewhere else.

Just don't talk to him about the snow and ice. I'm afraid he may not be so tolerant in January.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Turkey Scratch

I was doodling a while back, and came up with this:

I'll name him Frankin, in honor of a true turkey advocate.

My interpretation of a turkey. Though not drawn from my own hand, I determined that using the hand as a model would lend itself to a greater level of realism. I feel that I achieved that in this rendering.

It looks like a pretty realistic turkey to me.

Don't judge my artistic abilities. Among elementary art classes, I'm a visionary.

Though some people see doodling as rude, wasteful, or unproductive, there have actually been studies that show the positive effects of doodling on memory and comprehension.

Many great thinkers used the margins to explore their best ideas, and to the general public, it appeared to be nothing but gibberish and doodling.

So to those who scoff at my doodles, I offer the following message, conveyed in a medium that I hope you will appreciate:

Franklin thanks you for your support.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Simply Put, Life is too Complex

Sometimes I wish my life were a little more simple. Take this couple, playing on the streets of Paris:

Playing outside Sacre Coeur
They were so happy. I remember the music they were playing as we labored breathlessly up Montmartre.

It wafted through the trees, and as tourists rounded the cobblestone corner, they stopped and simply listened. The urgency that their meticulous triptiks demanded was forgotten as they sipped their water, marveled at the gargantuan cathedral that lay before them, and smiled at the dancing melodies that sprung from this aged duo's fingertips.

I love street music. Sometimes, I wish I could be one of those people, making music day in and day out.

Obviously I am romanticizing the profession a great deal. I am sure that these people have to deal with an immense amount of pain, annoying passerby's, lack of health insurance, and carrying an accordion up all those stairs. But then again, they don't have to worry about many of the things that someone in the traditional professional industry deals with either.

Paperwork is for the Birds

Last night I was working on filing paperwork. Bills, statements, and other ephemeral records of what my wife and I owe to whom for which services provided, etc. About an hour into the process, our living room floor was covered in stacks of papers. It reminded me of what I imagine the Nixon administration offices looked like, prior to the Watergate scandal. Papers everywhere.

"The Bird Confetti" by Lotte Geeven
I know you are supposed to keep these records for three to five years, but I am having trouble seeing the reasons. It seems like a ploy to keep people bogged down in "stuff".

Do hobo's have to deal with paperwork? Bills, filing, record keeping? Do drifters dream of mundane details? I know I should be happy with my current status in the "American Dream" machine, but sometimes I'd rather get off the grid, out of the system, and on my own time. To some, a folly desire. To others, not so extreme.

I say, to hell with stuff. It's time to set the paper free.

To Cherish or Perish?

I am increasingly torn between this frantic desire to save everything I have ever owned and a deep, heartfelt disdain for all the clutter in my life.

My grandfather was born in 1935. He grew up in the final days of the depression, so learned the value of tangible goods. Things lasted longer back then because there was scarcity. He learned to use things until they turned to dust, because, who knew when another would be available.

This mentality was passed on to my mother and her siblings, who in turn has passed it on to me. Now we live in a disposable society where everything is single-serving, immediate use. There is no longer a fear of availability. But the retention instinct remains.

I am not saying that I want to be able to wear my socks once and then throw them away. I am not advocating using paper plates and plastic utensils everyday. I am merely saying that my life is filled with "stuff" that I don't really need. Knickknacks adorn shelves. Closets burst with unknowable collections. Cabinets burst with kitchen utensils that evoke images of medieval torture.

Why can't we live more simply!?!? What is it all for?

I think Annie and I are going to become Amish. They probably don't have paperwork to file.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Family Gatherings: Life Lessons from Those Who Know

I went back to Southeast Iowa last weekend for my families Easter celebration. It was everything you'd want in a family gathering - four generations, sharing stories, catching up, collecting pastel plastic ovaloids filled with candy. As I wandered my uncle's house, I reflected on the things I appreciate about my family. These are things that my family will do as long as there are get-togethers such as these. Here are some highlights:

Bi-Partisan Paternal Pundits

My all-knowing uncles heatedly debating political items that Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh discussed six weeks ago. I walked into the kitchen for a beverage and was greeted by a cacophony of old men, bickering about birth certificates and Libya's oil output. Tempted to join the fray, I opted to go back into the living room and pretend to watch NASCAR.

The Mysteries Inside of a Child's Mind

Small children have no qualms with sliding down hills in their new Easter clothes, nor do they see anything wrong with picking up dog poop in them. My cousin Holly has a big problem with both, especially when the practices are being done by her children. She is generally a soft spoken woman, but when her daughter was discovered with unmentionable material smeared across her palms, she turned into the mother we all remember having.

"Lillie! Get over here! No, Don't touch anything! Put your hands in the air. That is disgusting!"

We were all so proud.

The Devils Tea

Whiskey. Blended Canadian, preferably Black Velvet. Generally mixed with squirt at a 2/1 ratio. Drink until you agree with the uncles' political views, or no longer care.

This is the beverage of choice for my grandfather, uncles, great uncles, and now my cousins and I. It goes down smooth, and makes engaging conversation even more dynamic.


Plates of pure carbohydrates, covered in carbohydrates, with a side of carbohydrates. And for dessert? Aunt Pat's famous carbohydrate-filled brownies. Welcome to diabetic Hell (the most delicious Hell ever dreamed of).

I think I ate close to 200 carbs in the form of cheesy potatoes, rice casserole, homemade bread, and noodle salad. Add in Brownies, pie, cake, and Easter candy? Goodnight.

Busch Light

My uncle John walks in the house with an open can of Busch light. I'm not sure if he was drinking on the way here, but I wouldn't be surprised. While I question his methods, I commend his brazen love of cheap beer.

The Takeaway

This is my Easter message. Visit your family often. The stories they tell and the history they share are invaluable, and should be treasured and appreciated, even if they are tinged with a little more country than you prefer.

My Great Uncle Don was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer a few weeks ago. When I saw him last weekend, he was a hollow shell of what he once was. Struggling to get into the house, he sat down on the couch, out of breath, and proceeded to share with me what he'd been through the last few weeks.

As he recounted doctors visits and hospital tests, he was surprisingly optimistic. He joked and kidded about shots and scans, and was in relatively high spirits. It was then that I realized how important it is to be at family events such as this one. It seems that Uncle Don is going to make it through this episode, but as a man in his early seventies, he had us all worried. And he's not out of the woods quite yet.

So tolerate your family. And open your eyes and your ears. You may actually find some enjoyment in their antics.