Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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July – The Quintessential Summer Month

I say this because July is the only summer month in which children are completely free of school. Some schools don’t end their year until late in June.  Some begin the next year in August. Of course, for people whose children are grown, or who never had them, all summer months hold possibilities.  But for children, July is a beautiful blank, offering everything from summer camps to fun lessons to family vacations–and, best of all, time to be alone with themselves, or to spend  it with friends.

I grew up in a town surrounded by farms: wagons brought in just picked corn, tomatoes, butter beans and snap beans, as well summer squash, okra, cucumbers and eggplants.  Plus gallon buckets of figs, won in an early morning battle with Blue Jays and mockingbirds who wanted them all for themselves.  Now when organic vegetables and those grown without chemicals are the most desired, I imagine what the response of old Cajun ladies would be.  “Mais, chere, what you talk about chemicals?  We got every kind of manure you could want.”  As for heirloom plants, generations of farmers,from those who first held the Spanish land grants to those decades later, collected seeds to be used in the next planting.

So what did we do with July’s bounty of days in the forties’ and fifties’?  We picked blackberries, overcoming thorn pricks and the fear of snakes by imagining the blackberry cobbler we’d have for dinner.  We rode our bikes through the various neighborhoods in which our friends lived, knowing that every door was open, and if we needed anything from water to a Band-aid, it would be supplied.  We swam at the large municipal pool. We walked to the public library, choosing books we’d read in shaded hammocks or high up in a tree.

In the cooler evenings, we played games and caught fireflies, or sat on screened porches under ceiling fans, listening to family stories that entered our minds and hearts and blood, creating connections that would last life-long.

When we became teenagers, we went to movies in groups, always ending at Borden’s, an ice cream place still open at the same location.  We had slumber parties. We whiled away summer afternoons with, first Canasta, and later, bridge.  We learned to cook, and to sew.  We went to sleep-away camps.

And all this in a place where the only open carry guns were those hunters carried in the swamps and fields, and where strangers in town were spied upon by little old ladies whose life work was to make sure everyone was who they were supposed to do, doing what they were supposed to do, where they were supposed to do it.

No television, but millions of stars a naked eye could see because street lights weren’t strong enough to obscure them.   We listened to TOM MIX, and JACK ARMSTRONG, and LET’S PRETEND, in which never was heard a vulgar word.  We went church on Sunday, and put nickels in the poor box on the way out.

And at the same time, we went through the Great Depression and WWII. We joined the Junior Red Cross and knitted helmet liners for our troops.  We bought  Victory Stamps and got used to rationing.

If I were able to re-create that time for children growing up today, I would do it.  Because when one Presidential candidate asks Russia to hack into another’s emails, we have sunk so low that I think only a very large dose of nostalgia is among the very few things that jut might save us.

 

 

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Escape Reading

The English poet, William Wordsworth, opened a sonnet with this line:  “The world is too much  with us, late and soon.”   I imagine that a great many people feel that way, and so today I will recommend novels that, I think, can take us out of this world and into another, at least for a while.

I have read all the books on this list, and chose them for various reasons.  They range from British satire to mysteries solved by detectives with comic flair to character studies that explore how people change, and, all together, they form a smorsgabord that will, I hope, provide something for every taste.

HAPPY ALL THE TIME, by Laurie Colwin, follows four sane, intelligent, well-intentioned people who live and work in New York city, and who manage to fall in love in spite of themselves.

AUNTIE MAME by Patrick Dennis.   Yes, you’ve seen both Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball play this indomibitable woman: if you enjoyed themovies, you will LOVE the book.

RIGHT HO, JEEVES, by P.G. Wodehouse, is a visit to the world of Bertie Wooster, his eccentric relatives, and his impeccable butler, Jeeves–British satire at its best.

TOPPER by Thorne Smith, set in the Flapper era in New York city, is a romantic ghost story made popular by the film, but it more than stands on its one as a fine read.

DELTA WEDDING, by Eudora Welty, is set on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta in 1923, and is “exquisitly woven from the ordinary events of family life,” including a wedding.

ANY book written by James Thurber.  His quirky humor has stood the test of time, and his writing is a treat.

ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, by Anne Tyler, explores what happens to people after a life-changng event, and how they manage to get past it.   Excellent insights into the human condition, a mixture of wisdom and comedy.

BLACK MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN, by Lee Smith, is the first of her novels that I read, and I have never forgotten it.  Smith’s art and craft, and a compelling main character, as well as Smith’s ability to embrace us in a particular time and place, make this book a stand-out.

ANY book by Fannie Flagg.  Reading her is like sitting on a front porch on a summer evening listening to the family story-tellers talk.

SKINNY DIP, by Carl Hiassen, has eccentric characters and all of his hallmarks–a combination of mayhem and merrient, with a ripping plot.  Read one of his and I would be surprised if you aren’t hooked.

The Spenser series by Robert B. Parker presents a Boston detective with a sharp mind, a compassionate heart, and a soul filled with honor.   Parker’s plots are solid, his characters jump off the page, and in my opinion, his novels are tickets to a world in which good triumphs over evil, with many twists and a lot of laughs along the way.

 


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A Simple Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love.  Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.  Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light.  Where there is sadness, joy.

Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console.  To be understood, as to understand.  To be loved, as to love,

For it is in giving, that we receive.  It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned.  It is in dying, that we are born to eternal life.

St. Francis

Our country is desperately in need of healing, which can come only when we all separate those things that can’t be changed–skin color, ethnic origin, sexual orientation–from those things that can be changed.   The seeds of hatred are usually sown when we begin to see people who are “different” from us as being less than human.  And yet, everyone is “different” to someone.  My own view is that in a materialistic society, it is difficult to have a positive sense of self, because when what we own rather than who we are, separates those who are “acceptable” from those who are not, it is very difficult not to want to be accepted.  But unless one can enter the money competition, that doesn’t happen.  And so we begin looking down on those different from us, we begin blaming them for everything that’s wrong in our city, or state, or country, and before long, any empathy we might have had is gone.

Stereotyping can be a useful analytic tool.   Stereotypes are usually presented in a Bell curve, which has a high, wide center which curves gradually from a narrow, low one at the left end to a narrow, low one at the right end.   The left end contains those members of the study who demonstrate enough of the characteristics the study is analyzing to enter the curve.   As the curve rises to the high middle, larger groups of members who have common charteristics form.  As the curve heads for the right end, fewer and fewer members have the common characterisitics, and will, eventually, leave that curve and enter another one.

But few to none of  human beings studied have all the characteristics the curve represents. And this is why psychology and other fields that study human behavior are often termed “soft sciences,” because when dealing with human beings, there are variations that make hard and fast conclusions difficult.

Stereotypes are used in marketing, and in political polls, as well as many other ways.  When I taught Freshman Composition, and we worked on Classification essays, I explained stereotypes to my students, and asked them to bring a list of the magazines they subsribed to and the catalogs that appeared, unasked for, in their mail boxes.  As we went over the lists, patterns emerged.  The catalogs most students received were mostly all alike in terms of what they sold.   Some students had a variety, but not a large one.  One boy, when reading his list aloud, exclaimed,  “Everyone of these is about cars.  I need to get some more interests.”  Then we discussed the kind of people the catalogs were aimed at.  I asked every student if the catalogs covered every aspect of who he or she was.  The answer was always no.

The prevalance of clothing, shoes, athletic gear, etc. with the designer or manufacturer’s name in a prominent place helps create stereotypes, and marketing techniques use persusive techniques to make one product THE most desirable.  As if a name on a pair of sneakers changes one thing about the person wearing them.   Unfortunately, our country has succumbed to the false promises of advertisers who use celebrities to endorse their products, creating ads that are filled with beautiful people doing fun things–like the Wizard of Oz, creating illusions that we have been brain-washed into seeing as real.

Thus a system in which, if you don’t wear the “right” clothes, etc., you are worth less than those who do, evolves.  From there come stereotypes about people that have divided our country drastically.

St. Francis’ simple prayer suggests a path that might lead to a society in which character, which cannot be bought, is more important than those things that can be, and in which human beings are regarded as individuals instead of categorizing them by the things that cannot be changed.

 

 

 


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Brief Encounters

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS is the name of one of my favorite movies.   Set in war-time London, the story is simple: a man and a woman meet at a train station and the results change both their lives.   None of my brief encounters with people have been that dramatic, but they have been interesting, surprising, informative and entertaining.

A recent brief encounter took place in a doctor’s waiting room.   I complimented the woman next to me on her blouse, which was a quite striking print in blues and white.  She said her sister-in-law who lives in Georgia had sent her that top, and another one along the same lines but with different colors.  From that start, our conversation moved to a more philosophical level: we talked about the difference it makes when family and friends show their affection for and interest in us with words, gestures, and surprise gifts.  Then we talked about humanity in general: our conclusion was that if everyone on the planet who says they believe in a god  had lives that made that belief active, the world would change overnight.  (Judging by everything I have read, the Koran does not promote violence.)

The next brief encounter occurred when I drove to the Baton Rouge General physician’s office buildng on Summa Avenue.   I had Red Velvet cupcakes in Fourth of July liners for my doctor’s entire staff, which amounted to fourteen people.  I had put the cupcakes in red polka dot cellophane bags and loaded the bags into a cardboard box.  It wasn’t particularly heavy, but it was awkward.   When I arrived at the building, I asked one of the valet parkers if i could park on the side of the drive since I would only be there ten minutes.   He said yes.

Then, as I approached the doors of the building, a large security guard asked me where I was taking the cupcakes.   I said the fourth floor; he said he would carry the box for me.  I told him I could manage, but he insisted on carrying the box, and when we arrived at the fourth floor, when I said I could carry them from there, he said,  “At least, I’m going to open the door.”  A brief encounter, but one that brightened my day

On a flight from Albuquerque, I met the architect of the Wendy Reames Wing at the Dallas Musuem of Art, one of my favorite places to visit.  He is now working with an organization building urban trails in Dallas.  He had an interesting life, his stories sparked mine, and exchanging them occupied us pleasantly all the way to Dallas.

Another pleasant brief encounter occurred when I was flying to the northeast to visit family.  A young man sat next to me, and I noticed he had a book on World War II. I commented on it, saying I had read other books by that author and had always enjoyed them.  He responded, and we were soon talking about other books about WWII.  I told him my first husband’s brother had been a major with General Patton when they freed Dachau and Auchwitz, and that my second husband had been a bombadier, flying 28 missions against Japan from a base in Guam: he and three other members of the crew earned the Distinguished Flying Cross because they held the record for the length of a bomb run–28 hours, which held until Kosovo.  It turned out the young man was an Army brat, and had lived many places, including Germany and Japan.  He told he was getting married that week-end, that he managed tugboats on the Mississippi, and lived in New Orleans.  I asked if he had a photo of his bride: he showed it to me, and told me that his bride, a teacher, already had a job at Lutcher Charter School, and their apartment was only blocks from the school.  He learned about a grandson’s eighth grade graduation, and two other grandsons’ baseball games.  Anyone seeing us would think we were old friends instead of strangers who parted, not as acquantances, but on the way to being friends.

That, I think, is one of most delightful aspects of brief encounters.   In all probability, one will never see that person again.  And so the getting-to-know you process that is essential if an acquaintance is to become a friend never happens.  Two people sit next to each other, one invites conversation, the other either accepts it or by word or behavior says no.   No investment, just another memory of a human being who is open to brief encounters, and enjoys them as much as I do.