Can we talk about pie and world peace?

Can we talk about pies? It’s the week for pies, not that every week isn’t a week for a slice of pie, but Thanksgiving seems to bring out the latent baker in just about everyone. There is a subset of home cooks, however, who think holiday desserts are a throw away and either Aunt Mildred can bring it or Mrs. Smith can bake it or maybe no one will recognize those single serving Table Talk pies and think they’re tarts. No one is fooling anyone here: either make the pie yourself or be honest and serve cake.

If you love pies as much as I do you might have made a small career out of eating slices of pie in any restaurant you happen to visit. The first question is always, “Are your pies made here?” If the answer is “no,” I’m done. If you tell me you do make your pies but you use those cardboard pre-made crusts or something gluey out of a Sysco can, we’re done. I’m a pie snob.

Which brings me to Mrs. Nault. When I was a young girl my country education included milking a cow, feeding chickens, churning butter, haying, bread baking and making pies. Lots of pies. Mrs. Nault baked everything and cooked everything on, and dried every wet mitten and hat over, an enormous Atlantic Queen, a giant black cookstove that dominated her Vermont kitchen. Electricity was a fickle thing so lanterns were at the ready and candles would sub for a little atmosphere on dark winter nights when the temperature dropped like a rock below zero and the bark on trees would explode from the cold. The wood for that cookstove was carried in by her husband, Perley, who insisted his “lovely bride” of fifty years made the best pies in two counties. Judging by the amount of company that appeared on the doorstep on pie and bread baking day, that was a modest assessment.

There are many ways to make pie crust but Mrs. Nault insisted pie crust was best made from lard and butter. Let’s face it: if you’re going to eat pie crust, go all the way and skip the crisco. And while you’re at it, save the whole wheat flour for bread. I have nothing against healthy eating but we’re talking about pie. Pie is dessert and the words “healthy” and “desserts” seem a bit at odds in the same sentence. After the horror of low fat and the misguided need to make the Cookie Monster eat carrots, leave pie alone.

If you take half butter and half lard, or all butter, and you gently flake it into some flour with a smidgen of salt and a little ice water, just enough to make the dough roll into a ball, than you have the makings of the perfect pie crust: flaky, tender, melt in the mouth. And if you chill that dough for a bit and gently roll it out from the center, and not in random directions hither and yon until it’s beaten down and looks kind of grey and tough, you will have a lovely rolled out crust with bits of butter that will blend and meld.

Mrs. Nault taught me to use the freshest fruit, squeeze lemons for the best tasting lemon pies, grate bitter chocolate for deep flavored chocolate pies, use eggs a couple of days old for the highest meringue, seek out heavy cream with no preservatives for the loveliest whipped cream, and always use unsalted butter to make my crusts. This isn’t foodie fashionista stuff. In a farm kitchen you use the best you have to hand and bake from the head and heart with a small recipe file of favorites. You don’t need the Food Network and Rachel Ray to tell you the obvious or what you’re doing wrong or how it would taste so much better if you spend a lot of money on ingredients and kitchen doodads you don’t need.

We live in changing times. But there is a constant: a piece of homemade pie and a hot cup of good coffee. I think society fell apart when people stopped pausing their day for pie and coffee and a little conversation as their mid-morning break. Not some rushed Starbuck’s coffee-ish drink with your name scrawled over the cup or something gobbled at your desk but time to sit down and stop. Just stop the noise. A small ritual that brings balance.

If you come to my house you’re going to find a pie, whatever I felt like making that day, and I’ll put on a pot of coffee and we’ll sit down and have a chin wag. We’ll wave our forks and talk about the weather and whatever else we ramble upon. I don’t expect pie and coffee will lead to world peace but there was a time when a lot more problems were solved at the local diner than in the media.

Maybe we need a time machine to show us what we’re missing in this contentious country where pie is relegated to the holidays and sitting down and conversing over a slice and a cup of coffee is a forgotten art.

Posted in Community, Food, Good manners, Relationships, Sweet temptations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dirt Road Devil Babies

Travelling a rural road with few sign posts can take you miles out of your way. Be forewarned: it’s not all peace and quiet and bucolic scenery out there. Iffy cell service, animals on a collision course with your bumper, and a frisson of fear at the thought of breaking down in the middle of nowhere ferment in your gut. Country driving is straight out of a B horror movie. Cue the creepy music. If I were you, I’d turn around.

On your way to nowhere in particular you expect to see farms and fields, a few cows, and long stretches of dust. But not much else. But there’s one road, a Class Four dirt road tucked into the recesses of eastern Rensselaer County, NY, where you might come across the unexpected: the heads of two devil babies. It’s a touch of the macabre in the pastoral countryside. The two heads are part of two columns at the end of an overgrown dirt track running off a dirt road. How did they get there? 

According to the locals at the mom and pop a couple of miles down the paved road, the devil babies have been there for at least a hundred years glowering at passersby and scaring the daylights out of children. But no one knows who put them there. There’s never been a house on the property. Are they telling the truth? Do the locals know more than they’re saying? If you can sniff out a story, this might be a good one.

Consider it a dog with a bone kind of thing but I checked in at the local post office one town over and it wasn’t the same story. This time the postmaster mentioned a house built by a stranger who shunned local company but entertained several times a year with giant bonfires and eerie music the locals could hear through the trees. One night at the end of October, 1912, the house burned to the ground. What started the fire, so the story goes, remains a mystery. “The house just burned to the ground in a coupla minutes,” the postmaster verified. “The owner and his guests were long gone. All that’s left out there are the two devil baby columns and a cellar hole, unless you count the round patch further out in the woods where nothing grows.” Was the postmaster having me on?

Sometimes it pays to ask a few more questions, but that depends on how friendly the locals are. Locals tend to regard any passersby as snooping in their business or worse: working for the government. Back at the mom and pop, and with a few more purchases laced with some questions about the house in the woods, I was shut down. No more information would be forthcoming and scoot.

It was late afternoon and the woods were falling into shadow but curiosity has a way of getting the better of good judgement when you’re talking two devil baby heads. There was just enough daylight to snap a couple of photos of the heads glowering at me in the fading light. Every kid knows that no good comes of stumbling around in the woods in the dark. The eeriness of the site and the chance to revisit when the sun wasn’t going down put me back in my car and down the road before you could say Old Scratch.

Two weeks later on an ideal weather day of sun and a light breeze, I was back at it. Finding a dirt road off an unmarked dirt road is no small trick when you didn’t pay much attention the first time. After an hour of backing out of driveways and heading in the opposite direction, I found the turn off to the smaller dirt track. Calling it a road would have been too generous and if I had any thoughts about calling for help, a quick check showed I was in a cell dead hole.

Putting yourself in a pickle on purpose is foolishness. There were choices to be made. Folly or not, I made mine. Covered with bug spray I set out for the cellar hole and the mysterious barren circle. Unless you count the two leering beat up devil babies, I was alone.

I hadn’t succeeded in convincing anyone back home this was a good idea. “If the locals say “scoot” that must mean they don’t want anyone tramping around back there,” it was reasonably pointed out. While I was lacing up my boots, there was a quick as a wink moment when I asked myself if maybe my lack of common sense and poor impulse control was going to finally catch up with me. But operating on the “you only go around once” principle of risk taking, I set off.

A few minutes later, and a short walk into the woods on a partially overgrown track, I found myself staring down into a cellar hole I was sure marked the foundation of a sizable structure. The stacked stone foundation had small trees and shrubs poking through and stones in one corner were charred from high heat. What had happened here? If I was a betting woman, I’d put my money on the story the local postmaster told me. The next step was to find the strange circle in the woods.

I’m not superstitious but being alone out there made a tiny prickle run up the back of my neck. After a half hour traipsing over an overgrown path and hopping around poison ivy, I found a clearing. If I was going to direct one of those cheesy devil movies with people standing around chanting in black hooded robes with torches burning off the darkness, I’d chose this spot for the location.

The clearing was barren, except for a ring of tall scraggly pines with peeling bark and dusty barren earth beneath. The lack of vegetation and a deep bed of rusty red pine needles didn’t explain the symmetrical pile of stones in front of me. I have a pretty good imagination but the closer I got the surer I was they hadn’t been stacked there a hundred years ago. It looked as if they had been piled up to look tumbled down. Someone was having me on.

The temptation to fool with local folklore, or to invent a whimsical scary story, is irresistible. If someone goes looking for something and it doesn’t exist, it’s hard to pass up the chance to accommodate their desire for a good story. Plus you can never under-estimate a person’s desire to be fooled. Some time between my asking questions and taking a walk toward the clearing I was led to believe would be the scene of devilish shenanigans, I’d talked myself into the veracity of everything I was told. Two conflicting accounts only made it more mysterious, more enticing.

Should I go to the local post office and mom and pop to thank them for the fun or should I get back to the point: why were there two columns with the heads of devil babies in the middle of nowhere? Was there a story out there or not? Should I let it go? Or should I do what I ultimately did: go to the area historical society and the town assessor’s office and ask questions. I wanted to believe in something otherworldly but after an hour of toggling between the two offices I learned the real story was more prosaic.

It turned out the devil babies were a later design feature installed by a guy from Brooklyn with a weird sense of humor who loved a good party on Halloween. Having a couple of devil babies on posts beats tying balloons to the mailbox when you want your guests to find their way. A little more investigating and I discovered you can find those devil baby heads at a concrete statuary dealer. The same place you can buy your garden gnomes with pointy red hats. I have to admit I’m a little skeptical of devil babies as a stock item but so much for mystical mystery.

There is, however, a word of caution here about the willingness of even the most cynical to believe in something improbable. It’s easy to create a tall tale. What do you want to be today? What ghost story do you want to believe? What fairy tale? What do you want and who do you want to make life a whole lot better? Religion or politics? Food or alcohol or drugs? A special someone to love or elect or deify? Americans have an amazing gift for naivete turned to sour tears at the glass slipper not fitting.

I’ll admit I was let down by the way this turned out. I might not be Fox Mulder but I’m no different than anyone else: I want to believe. Maybe I’m just being wistful at missing a good story, a tall tale to tell. I sure don’t need devil babies to scare the hell out of me these days, I just have to listen to the news.

It would be wonderful to have something magical hidden in the woods you can stumble upon accidentally on a meandering drive through the countryside. Do people really do that anymore: go off on an unplanned backroads adventure hoping they’ll find the unexpected? I’ve decided I won’t tell you where the devil babies are. But they’re worth the trip. They’re out on a dirt road off a dirt road headed nowhere in a rural county headed east. Those are the only directions I can give you. You get to imagine the rest.

Photo credit: The Author took this picture and she still won’t tell you where it is.

Posted in Country weirdness, Devilish stuff, Halloween, It's outta this world!, Lies, Nature, Spirituality, Stories, Stories from the Boonies, Travel, Weird stuff, Wilderness | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What happens when beach reads get uppity

Blame it on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Julia Keller. It was a steamy 2009 Chicago summer when she encouraged us to read a book over summer vacation. It should be something light on plot and a bit savory and it certainly shouldn’t sit as heavy as the lobster roll with fries you just ate. The “beach read” was born.

Beach reads offer a sweet lick of mystery and romance with a lot of froth. No one is fooling anyone here: in six months this summer’s crop will be at the library book sale. The formulaic characters are pretty much the same: a spunky heroine with long hair and no cellulite, a muscular male with wavy hair and a mysterious past, a cove, a beach, a summer house, a bed and breakfast, a creepy mansion on a hill overlooking a cove or a beach, money, and at least one car you will never be able to afford. Girl road trips are big this year, so are some version of family dysfunction or rediscovery around the campfire.

Chucking the coastal theme, there’s the “urban romp” sub-genre. Everyone is engaged in self-serving ennui while earning a six-figure income and dreaming of escape to a simpler life in a small town with at least one interesting reclusive local. Our protagonist will buy the local hardware store and run for town council while solving the unusual number of murders in town. No one will notice the murder rate sharply increased with this newcomer’s arrival.

What you’re not likely to see is anyone overweight, or living in a trailer park, or driving a beater box, or unemployed or disabled, except as a plot device to elicit laughs. Beach reads tend heavily toward vanilla-flavored white middle class self-serving schlock. If there was ever a case for keeping cheap paperbacks flowing, beach reads are it.

Let’s up our game. It was 1851 and after a year and a half of writing with a quill pen by candlelight, Harper & Brothers, London, published a story by 31-year-old Herman Melville chronicling the tale of a whaling expedition to the South Seas, an obsessed sea captain and a white whale. The story was narrated by a novice crew member, Ishmael. Based on the real-life white whale, Mocha Dick, and the sinking of the whaler, Essex, the 800 pages of Moby Dick remain the singular most compelling narrative of whaling and obsession in literature. The first and perhaps the best beach read.

It’s interesting this acknowledged Great American Novel can be had for as little as $3 while some transient bit of fluff will set you back $25, if you want a hardcover, or less if you want the e-reader edition. Does Moby Dick qualify as a beach read? If you consider the elements of a beach read are there: angst, friendship, the fine line between love and obsession, money, exotic locales, colorful characters, the sea, the beach, a couple of inns, a coastal town or two, and something menacing. It may not have long-legged blondes or hedge fund brokers but it does have tattooed harpooners and men of the sea.

If stories of the sea take you to a place of endless summers and danger, consider this: Peter Benchley’s Jaws did for sharks what Moby Dick did for whales. There are parallel plot devices in both novels. Jaws had an out-sized murderous shark, an obsessed shark fisherman looking for revenge, a great struggle at sea that resulted in the death of the shark fisherman and the shark, and the same level of anatomical detail that Melville used when he described the whale. If you saw the films, you watched Gregory Peck rage across the deck of the Pequot and Quint across the deck of the Orca. You knew these two would come to a sticky end.

There aren’t any rules about how long it should take to read a beach book, except maybe the self-imposed one that says, “I have to finish this thing before vacation is over.” Sorry not sorry, Moby Dick won’t be finished with you before you head back home. And maybe Jaws made you wonder if you wear the slinky black bathing suit that makes you look like a seal and go for a splash, will you catch the attention of a Great White migrating up the coast? Why mull over human angst when you can have terrifying sea life to worry about. Nothing beats sitting on a beach looking out over the water and wondering.

Reading should never be a slog. It should take us to places we will never see and to adventures we could never have. If we agree on that, open your beach bag and I’ll drop in a few of my favorite summer reads: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Jaws by Peter Benchley, and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Sebastian Junger, winner of the National Book Award in 2016. The Essex inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. The Perfect Storm, the true story of the loss at sea of the fishing vessel, Andrea Gail, and her crew, during the “no name storm” that raged along the eastern seaboard during the last week of October, 1991. And Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad, a tale of human folly steering a course into the face of a South Pacific typhoon.

We both know all of these were made into films; but, do this first: take these voyages waiting for you this summer in the pages of five near perfect books. Can you feel the salt spray? Did you check the horizon for a rim of clouds that signals a storm? Remember the old saying, “Books falls open, you fall in.”

Photo credit: Ricardo Martinez

Posted in Beach reads, Creatures of the Deep, Great reading, Nature, Stories, Tales of the Sea, Travel, Uppity reads, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Johnsonville Lights: Is the truth really out there?

June 6, 2017, 01:17, Johnsonville, NY, looking southwest toward the Johnsonville Dam on the Hoosic River in Rensselaer County. Reporter states he witnessed seven “or so” pulsing red-orange lights moving in formation over the spillway and proceeding downriver toward the Town of Schaghticoke. Residents interviewed in vicinity indicate this phenomena has been observed multiple times in the same area over the past two years. (Reported 6/7/17)
What’s going on here?

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, there’s now a way to check on a UFO sighting against similar sightings in an area. Just released is the blandly named U.F.O. Sightings Desk Reference: United States of America, 2001-2015. It’s not a page turner, unless you like statistics and graphs, but it does give a national county-by-county analysis of UFO sightings reported to the nation’s two largest UFO investigative agencies, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC).

Don’t expect to read about lizard people or politicians or any other weirdness in America, this is a scientific analysis of all the data collected about UFO sightings across the country. Parsing the charts, graphs, and numbers, the authors, Cheryl Costa and Linda Miller Costa, let the data speak to a fourfold increase in UFO sightings around the country from 2001 to a high of nearly 125,000 in 2015. These are sightings documented in the MUFON and NUFORC databases.

It’s speculated that the majority of sightings are never reported. According to nuclear physicist Stanton T. Friedman, the original civilian investigator at Roswell, statistically only 1 in 10 sightings are ever reported. If this is correct, the number shifts to a million and a quarter sightings during the same period, 2001-2015, or over 85,000 sightings in the US annually.

The study’s authors, Cheryl Costa, a military veteran and aerospace analyst, and Linda Miller Costa, who served as a librarian with NASA, as well as the National Academy of Science, and the Environmental Protection Agency, believed it was about time to analyze what direction the “UFO Phenomena” had taken. Their exhaustive data analysis found the majority of sightings in New York State are over Long Island and Manhattan, the state’s most densely populated area. But sparsely populated rural America has also seen a significant number of UFOs. You might not want to count out upstate New York just yet. Every county in New York has reported UFO sightings, at least two as recent as June 5 in Clifton Park (Saratoga County) and the Johnsonville lights report of June 6.

Are we all-seeing things? Reports indicate the majority of sightings are people walking their dog, sitting on the porch, driving to or from work, or just looking up at the stars on a clear evening. What exactly do these observers believe they’re seeing? It seems to depend on where you live. In the Capital Region, fireballs and triangular craft seem to dominate. New York ranks #6 in reported fireball sightings.

Where’s the photographic proof of all this action up in the sky? It’s not a secret that objects in motion don’t photograph well on a smartphone or digital camera. Distortion, handheld movement and the speed of the object create unique challenges for anyone who wants to capture one of these objects in motion. NUFORC and MUFON receive hundreds of images and videos every month. Most don’t withstand scrutiny but 6-20% have left questions with no current answers.

If you live near water, a military base or a power plant you might see shapes flying around the vicinity or observe an aerial light show. Rural Rensselaer County is a case in point: the small power generating dams on the Hoosic River seem to elicit a high number of sightings of pulsing orange lights.

With the volume of reported sightings, why are some observers reluctant to report? The reasons range from feelings of fear to feeling foolish, concern about becoming the object of ridicule, second thoughts about what was actually seen and belief the military is testing a mysterious new prototype. The other question that vexes researchers is why the increase in sightings now? Sightings peak in the United States during July, the belly of summer, when the weather is warm and people are outside in the evening. Belief in visitors from other worlds is as old as humanity and documented in art, the Bible, and thousands of reports; but, the real reason for increased reporting now may be as simple as internet access and a smartphone.

There’s a chasm between seeing something in the sky you can’t identify and actually seeing an alien, believing you have been abducted, or seeing a UFO land. In our nightmares we see War of the Worlds not E.T. The U.F.O. Sightings Desk Reference doesn’t get into this other side of reporting.

Since the 1947 Roswell Incident there have been documented and creditable unexplained contact reports but the majority of reports remain unexplained aerial phenomena and a bit of foolishness: a pie plate on a string and a stick, a smeary photo of someone winging a trash can lid passed the camera lens, or someone thrashing around in the woods in a wrinkled alien suit. But there are Americans who claim a more sinister encounter. Science finds little to support the majority of these claims and sleep science suggests that close encounters are actually night terrors and sleep paralysis manifesting as a dark, sinister alien presence in someone’s house.

Is the truth out there? You be the judge. Do you want to believe? How about a visit to Johnsonville on a clear summer night.

Posted in Country weirdness, It's outta this world!, Stories to read when you're not alone, UFO, Weird stuff | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Once upon a time on the Allagash…

A few years ago a friend of mine, an avid backwash fly fisherman, got himself into a pile of trouble up in the Allagash wilderness. For those who don’t know where the Allagash is, it’s in the remote northern part of Maine that butts up against the triple border of the US, Quebec and New Brunswick. There’s a whole lot of nothing there for jobs but a whole lot of black flies in the spring.

On this particular wilderness fly fishing weekend for city slickers, led by guides who were far slicker at lifting several hundred dollars from their acolytes then the lads were at lifting fish from the Allagash, my friend made the acquaintance of a swarm of black flies.

Black flies have two things on their minds in spring:  a nice warm blood meal and making little black flies. Thankfully their lifespan is measured in days. You never see a black fly travelling alone. They like to swarm and bedevil anything with warm blood. That bottle of Skin So Soft some smartass back at the office told you would ward off Satan himself might as well stay in your backpack. This is Fly Dope country.

Pat, my friend, a red-haired Irish kid from Boston, came outfitted by Orvis and LL Bean but not with an ounce of sense. On Day Two of the great wilderness adventure, the black flies caught up with him. He recalled the first thing he heard was a humming and the second thing was being engulfed in a black cloud. Within a few minutes of screaming and swatting he was being dragged away by two guides wisely covered with Fly Dope and black fly netting and gloves. But it wasn’t over for Pat.

It took a bit for the symptoms to develop but he began to swell up like a party balloon. At this point the guides knew there was trouble and it was time to evacuate Pat to a hospital. But the nearest hospital was a 60 mile round trip on poor secondary roads and with their charge looking like he had come out on the wrong end of a prize fight and beginning to complain of burning and difficulty breathing, it was time to call the medivac helicopter way down near the other end of Maine and the New Hampshire border. Still, it was the best bet.

Pat was evacuated several hours later full of Benadryl and epinephrine the guides carried for this kind of emergency. After several days in the hospital during which he had what the doc called “Black Fly Madness, he swore off fishing, gave away his gear, and made some promises to friends he would later regret.

I’m telling you this because this is the time of year when we all have bug stories. Maybe not as dramatic as Pat’s but some beauts nonetheless. And we have black flies. The no-see-ums and mosquitoes come later. Maybe if you live in the center of a city or stay indoors with the shades down and the doors locked, you will not experience the torment that is black fly season.

For the rest of us, how about some black fly trivia? Did you know these things can survive underwater in 32 degree weather? Or a determined black fly will fly up to ten miles to get a good burger? And did you know there are about 40 species of black flies in the northeast out of the estimated 1500 species spreading their misery across the globe? And, yes, you can die from black fly bites, although it’s not likely unless you’re like my friend Pat who is allergic. On the plus side, if water is polluted, black flies will not pause and they’re an excellent source of nutrients for bats, fish, and a few other insects.

What’s a gardener, hiker, angler, or anyone interested in being outside in the summer to do? Wrap up. Wear netting over a hat, wear light colors and long sleeves and don’t give them a chance to chew on your ankles. For about $11 you can buy some summer mesh bug gaiters that go from ankle to knee.

Midday is a great time to get outside and avoid the black flies, especially if it’s sunny and hot; but, overcast, humid, still days ring the dinner bell and swarms go cruising for brunch. And you might want to stay away from the woods or great outdoors at the ends of the day when they’re especially active. Avoid perfumes, smelly shampoos and consuming lots of sugar. These change your body’s pH and set you up as an entree. And don’t forget to apply DEET insect repellent to your clothes.

 If you hike or camp, take Benadryl and calamine or witch hazel in your kit. If you get bitten, be alert for signs of an allergic reaction: swelling of your face and extremities and difficulty breathing or swallowing. An acute reaction is unlikely but be prepared. Wash the bite site with soap and water and liberally apply the calamine or witch hazel you brought with you. Remember, if you have any symptoms of a true allergic reaction, don’t wait to get to medical care.

Black fly season in the northeast extends from early May to early July. We still have a couple of weeks to go. The folks over in Maine know all about black flies and has a handy Black Fly Survival Guide, the one-stop guide to what they are, why they’re after you and how to thwart them.

It’s Summer. Don’t let the black flies, ticks and mosquitoes get you down.

Posted in Bugs, Flyfishing, Health, Nature, Travel, Wilderness | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Professional Porch Sitters Union, Local 518

Porches are as much a part of an all-American summer as barbecues, flip-flops and swimming. A lot happens on a porch: lovers spoon, a dog naps in the sun, iced tea and lemonade taste better, and reading a book just seems perfect on a warm summer day. A porch is a space where everyone is welcome and hospitality abides.

The front porch is as old as history but in America front porches appeared in Colonial times when getting out of the house in the stifling summer heat was not only a chance to socialize but a necessity to drop the body temperature a few degrees. Porches come in all shapes and sizes from long horizontal spaces, to wrap around Victorian porches, to just enough space to sneak a couple of chairs.

Over the centuries, porches have become the heart of the house in summer with neighbors competing for the snazziest porch furniture, flowers, rugs, and artwork. So important is the porch to homeowners that the trend to make the porch a “three season” affair has been in vogue since the Fifties. But, beware: the modern raised ranch and post-WWII utilitarian construction was nearly the end of this cherished American architectural tradition. What replaces it? The deck. An open-air wood creation of slats and railings elevated above the ground and sequestered behind the house where privacy rules. Despite attempts to glorify deck construction, decks lack the welcoming charm of the all-American front porch.

If you’ve spent anytime porch sitting you might have noticed that porch ceilings are sometimes painted blue. If you thought it was to give the feeling you were looking up at the summer sky, you might be wrong. Blue porch ceilings are a Southern tradition, and one originating in South Carolina, where fear of restless spirits, haints, impelled homeowners to paint their porch ceilings, and often their window frames, blue to ward off evil spirits from entering the house and stealing family members away.

In New England you’re likely to see blue ceilings but what’s underfoot comes in two flavors: battleship grey and stained wood. There was a rumor going around a few decades ago that floors were painted grey to resemble the decks of whaling ships or the decks of battleships during WWII. The truth is grey hides dirt better than any other color underfoot. Nowadays folks have traded wide plank floors for the likes of concrete and tiling in newer construction.

Decorating a porch is big business and Pinterest and Houzz have page after page of ideas ranging from the rustic to high-end urban to DIY to “let’s pay a designer to do it for us.” If you’re of the “a coupla fold up chairs and a cooler” school of decorating your going to be ridden over by the color- coordinated crowd that worries their front porch won’t have enough curb appeal. There’s a lot of worrying that goes on with porch decorating. For something that’s supposed to evoke a slower life and banishing stress for a few hours, the angst that goes with creating a picture perfect setting can get to be expensive.

If you gravitate to old houses, you can be pretty sure you’re going to get a porch with that homestead. In rural America the Vernacular Greek Revival farmhouse followed the Greek Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century but added simple touches: side porches, smaller pediments and side additions. But the porch remains in nearly every farmhouse you drive passed or in every faux farmhouse in every development in America.

When I was a kid we had a Victorian porch in a neighborhood of Victorian houses with porches. Every porch was occupied at some point of the day or night no matter the weather. If you came home late, you could bet someone would be standing on the porch waiting for an explanation. If someone was sick, neighbors would gather on the porch with best wishes and covered dishes. You stepped out on your porch on a Sunday morning and stepped off to church or to breakfast. The porch was part of the family.

Across America there’s a no dues, no rules, no regulations, no contracts, no scheduled meetings, no agenda loose knit network of porch sitters that call themselves the Professional Porch Sitters Union. The motto: “Sit down a spell. That can wait.” The PPSU claims member locals in fifty states. The only thing you really need to join is a porch and a few chairs or a desire to sit a spell and take a load off your body and mind.

As a nation we don’t seem to agree on much anymore, except maybe that we like to sit on a porch and forget there is anything but a book, a cold drink, the warm sun and maybe a breeze. Maybe there’s a little subdued conversation but the porch is a place to shed your stress, forget politics and religion, trade a few stories, share a laugh, and watch the weather go by in a world that gets crazier by the day.

How about a Capital Region chapter of the Professional Porch Sitters Union? All we have to do is give ourselves a Local number. How about Local 518? We might even organize a few spontaneous porch sitting events. According to the union’s founder, Claude Stephens over in Louisville, KY, PPSU Local 1339, some suggested topics to get the conversational ball rolling are: “You think we’re going to get any rain?” Does it take more energy to argue over who will get more lemonade than it does to just get up and get it?” and “Sure is hot.” I can live with that kind of conversation on a sweltering summer day. How about you?

Photo credit: Professional Porch Sitters Union of America, PPSU Local 7

Posted in Community, Family, Neighbors and Neighborhoods, Relationships, Unions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Memorial Day means to one soldier’s little girl

Memorial Day never struck me as a mini-Black Friday, the day to run to the nearest holiday sales or tell anyone who will listen, “Thank God I’ve got Monday off!” Memorial Day is about remembering. A day to do what we should do everyday: remember our veterans. Those who died in combat or from the battles that rage in their minds long after they return.

I write about veterans because I respect what they have done. I may not respect the politics that put them in harm’s way but I respect their self-sacrifice, especially in a time when being self-satisfied seems to have become a mantra for America.

I’ve mentioned before that I come from a military family: father, husband and son have all served in different branches of the US military. I don’t believe any American does not know at least one person who served.

My adult life has been a search for my Dad, an Army veteran so broken in body and mind that he spent most of the year occupying a bed at the VA hospital in Vermont. I grew up there. I was the only kid I knew who ate dinner at the hospital commissary, a quonset hut left over from the war, or first tasted the wonders of a black and white ice cream sundae supplied by a sympathetic hospital cook. And I’m fairly certain that riding in the back of an ambulance with your Dad is not a normal childhood experience.

I mention this because I don’t want any of us to forget. Memorial Day isn’t a bunch of old men standing around a forgotten town memorial saluting the flag. There isn’t an American who hasn’t been touched by war; we’ve had too many of them. It’s hard for us to see the young soldier hiding in the wrinkles of a 90-year-old. And it’s a stretch to try to fathom the experiences of a generation of young men and women sent to places with names we struggle to pronounce. But we must do that for them and for us as a nation.

Memorial Day is the gateway to a red, white and blue summer. But we’ve lost the sense of what the day means. We don’t come to earth long enough to think about what this special day symbolizes and why we need to join those folks around the town memorial. We’ve moved the date from May 30 to one more convenient for a short holiday. We publish sale flyers weeks in advance and hope the weather holds to get in the tomato plants. What we lack in all the noise is a sense of generations and the legacy of having someone in the family come back from war. Or not.

Maybe what we need to remember in this country is that once upon a war we were all in it together. We don’t need another war to teach us that lesson. Or maybe as Andy Rooney told us: we don’t really need a Memorial Day to remember the dead so much as to remember all the young people who will die in future wars if we don’t make war disappear forever.

Memorial Day for me is a little girl pushing a wheelchair down the endless hallways of a hospital filled with sick, injured and dying veterans. We can do better than this.

Posted in Family, Government, Health, Politics, Relationships, Stories, War and Peace | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment