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Appreciation

The Best Seat in the House

Forget those trendy decks. The porch is the one place you're encouraged to just sit and watch the world go by.

March 28, 2001|JOEL ACHENBACH | WASHINGTON POST

There's no moment more sublime, more refreshing to the spirit, than the opening of Porch Season.

This is an event below the radar of the calendar, unrecognized by the government, still unexploited by corporate profiteers. It usually happens without warning, while you're taking out the trash or exiling a cat.

You suddenly realize that the porch has opened for business, that the porch is awake, out of its winter hibernation, that you can now sit on the porch and do porchy things and it will feel every bit as dynamic and flamboyant and thrilling as skiing or sailing.

Those unfamiliar with porching may wonder what, exactly, you do on a porch. Simple: You sit there. Then you sit there some more. You are in repose. You are declaring to the world that you are engaged in the act of sitting on your porch. You cannot be rushed, hectored, annoyed. You have all the ambition of a begonia.

To know that Porch Season has arrived you must rely on your direct sensory experience of the world. You might notice buds on the trees. You'll register the fact that twilight is lingering into what used to be the dark of night. You don't resent rain--it's spring rain, not winter rain.

Close your eyes and you'll smell the soil warming up, the juices flowing in the vegetable matter, the bulbs firing green blades skyward. You can hear birds reading each other the riot act. Sit on the porch long enough and you'll see the world is full of dramatic action.

Not everyone has the same knack for sitting on the porch. Those of us with unusual porching skill can run the risk of becoming porch bores, of talking so much about porches, about the relative merits of back and front porches, about the romance of balconies and the elitism of decks, that no one will want to be around us. I can't help it: I'm one of those people who can porch till the cows come home. (I know what you're thinking: Is he good at everything?)

The porch is neither inside nor outside. It is, rather, a "liminal" space, a boundary zone. I learned this from my neighbor Mike Dolan, who's writing a book on porches. He rebuilt his own porch, upon which Porch Season, by his personal calculation, opened during the afternoon of Feb. 20.

A Private Yet Public Spot

A porch, Dolan says, "is the outside rendered inside and the inside rendered outside. It's still your house, but it's in the public sphere."

As such, sitting on the front porch is an essentially social act, he explains. This, no doubt, explains why so many front porches, particularly in fancy-pants suburban neighborhoods, are empty. People are too busy to be social.

I'll confess: I have two porches and prefer the back to the front. I use the front porch only when I'm feeling social and have prepared a list of all-purpose entertaining remarks for use in a conversational emergency.

Aversion to the public sphere may be one reason the deck has become an architectural mainstay. A deck is in back of the house. Ideally it will have a giant umbrella, a hot tub, chairs and furniture made from the finest endangered hardwood species, and a gas grill that costs as much as a Mercedes and can cook a hot dog in less than a second.

Deck people--deckheads, I call them--think a porch is too down-market. They walk onto someone's porch and instantly think, "This needs a deck."

There was a time when a person sat on a porch without any self-consciousness at all. That's just what people did, especially down South. There's a moment in "An Hour Before Daylight," the new book by Jimmy Carter (kids, don't believe this urban myth that he was once the president), in which he talks about the visibility of the residents of rural Georgia:

"One difference between then and now, I guess, was that there was usually someone out in the yard, the store, the garden, or a nearby field who was watching the passing scene. Really old people, those who were not feeling well, and able-bodied folks on rainy days or on Sundays were most often sitting on their front porches. When we passed someone's house, we felt somewhat uncomfortable if we didn't see anyone there with whom we could exchange a wave or a hello."

We shouldn't make a virtue out of a painful necessity. People didn't have air conditioning in their homes; many didn't have cars. The porch was one of the few places they could be comfortable. That said, it's easy to see that technology and affluence have made a casualty of porching.

Porches Sit Empty and Silent

Entire neighborhoods now seem empty for much of the day. You drive around and think: Where the heck is everybody? The mall? The grocery store? Soccer practice? Are they hiding out in the basement? Has something terrible happened to them? Did they disappear into the online world and lose their way out?

The world would be better if everyone settled down on the porch and didn't move for a while. And if you don't have a porch, you can always pretend. Ninety-five percent of porching is in your head, anyway.

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